On 26 July 2019 the Gauteng High Court approved a historic 5 billion Rand settlement agreement between miners and six international mining companies (African Rainbow Minerals‚ Anglo American SA‚ AngloGold Ashanti‚ Gold Fields‚ Harmony‚ Sibanye Stillwater and Pan African Resources). The silicosis case does not come close to redressing the pain and suffering felt by affected miners and their families, but it is a good start.
What is silicosis?
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, a mineral that is part of sand, rock, and mineral ores such as quartz. It mostly affects workers exposed to silica dust in occupations such mining, glass manufacturing, and foundry work.
The strong association between silicosis and tuberculosis in southern Africa combined with the HIV epidemic make elimination of silicosis an important public health issue. The spread of the HIV epidemic contributed substantially to this: the immune system damage caused by HIV leads to increased rates of active TB disease, which in turn increases transmission.
Effects of silicosis
- Coughing is an early symptom and develops over time with exposure to silica that is inhaled.
- In acute silicosis, you may experience tiredness, cough, weight loss, fever and sharp chest pain along with breathing difficulty. These symptoms can come on suddenly.
- In chronic silicosis, you may only have an abnormal chest X-ray in the beginning and then slowly develop a cough and breathing difficulty. More than a third of people with silicosis have phlegm production and cough. Chronic bronchitis-like symptoms may occur, and the lungs have additional sounds called wheezes and crackles. As extensive scarring progresses over time, you may see signs of chronic lung disease such as leg swelling, increased breathing rate, and bluish discolouration of the lips.
Each type of silicosis affects the body somewhat differently:
- In acute silicosis, the lungs become very inflamed and can fill with fluid, which causes severe shortness of breath and low blood oxygen levels.
- In chronic silicosis, the silica dust causes areas of swelling in the lungs and chest lymph nodes, which makes breathing more difficult.
- In accelerated silicosis, swelling in the lungs and symptoms occur faster than in chronic silicosis.
- Over time, lung capacity decreases, and people with silicosis may need support with oxygen and other devices to help them breathe.
Who was affected?
The 69 applicants so far included in the proceedings do indeed represent up to 500,000 current and former gold mineworkers and their dependents in all the southern African countries from which people come to work on the South African gold mines. More than 45 of the applicants were silicosis patients, with or without TB, and more than 25 of them were TB-only cases.
The actual numbers of miners affected by silicosis is unknown. The mining industry thrives off the migrant labour system. The overwhelming majority of former gold miners are from areas historically known for supplying migratory labour to locations, including the Eastern Cape, Lesotho, Mozambique and Botswana. Other migrant labourers came as far as Malawi and Zambia.
Who benefits from the settlement?
- Mineworker who is sick with silicosis or TB and worked at one of these gold mines from 12 March 1965; or
- Dependent (wife, child or life partner) of a mineworker who has died and who got sick with silicosis and/or TB and worked at one of these gold mines anytime from 12 March 1965.
Eligible claimants will receive a medical examination and compensation. Affected miners will receive between R10 000 to R500 000, depending on the nature and the severity of the disease.
In the case of Bongani Nkala and 68 Others v Harmony Gold Mining Company Ltd and 31 Others, Mojapelo and two other judges addressed this question: can mineworkers and former mineworkers bring action for damages as a class, against gold mining companies for negligence as a result of which they were exposed to dust that caused silicosis and/or TB.
The settlement which is the first of its kind in the country’s history was reached by the Legal Resources Centre‚ Abrahams Kiewitz Inc and Richard Spoor Attorneys‚ who represented thousands of mineworkers‚ and the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) Working Group‚ who represented African Rainbow Minerals‚ Anglo American SA‚ AngloGold Ashanti‚ Gold Fields‚ Harmony‚ Sibanye Stillwater and Pan African Resources.
The six mining companies have secured guarantees for the R5 billion claim, though the eventual claim could be higher. Of this, R845 million has been set aside for administering the Tshiamiso Trust, which will accept claims for a period of 12 years, plus one additional year to wrap things up.
Silicosis and racism
The mining industry and regulations mirrored the ruling apartheid system. First white miners were placed in safer positions and supervisory roles, whereas the black miners worked in riskier underground jobs where they were more exposed to silica dust. Second all miners were regularly examined for TB, but the diagnostic methods for black miners were not thorough enough to detect most TB cases. Lastly when white miners were diagnosed with TB, they were often referred to sanatoria supported by the mining companies and the government; black miners were instead simply returned to their home villages.
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