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Johannesburg - For 20 years, Samuel Motaung worked in South Africa’s gold mines. As a team leader and health and safety supervisor, he worked underground.
It was only when he was sent for a medical assessment while being retrenched in 2001 that he learnt he had silicosis, a lung disease caused by the dust he had been inhaling for two decades.
Because of the coughing, shortness of breath and weakness, Motaung has not worked since.
In 2004, he joined 22 other miners from across the Free State in a claim against their former employer, Anglo American South Africa (AASA), for the disease they contracted working in the company’s gold mines.
On Wednesday, AASA settled the claim. But just how much Motaung and his fellow claimants received remains confidential. And AASA isn’t admitting liability either.
Instead, executive director Khanyisile Kweyama said: “AASA believes that agreeing to settle this long-standing litigation is in the best interests of plaintiffs, their families, AASA and wider stakeholders.” It’s a stance the miners’ legal team took, as well.
They first took up the case in 2004 and were preparing for an arbitration hearing next year, which they said they were confident of winning. But they agreed that a settlement was in the miners’ best interest.
“The wheels of justice have moved very slowly in this case,” said Richard Meeran, of UK human rights law firm Leigh Day, which joined forces with the Legal Resources Centre, Mbuyisa Neale Attorneys and Legal Aid South Africa to represent the claimants.
“Seven of the 23 claimants have died during the course of this case.”
He explained that the other claimants, all in fragile health, would have had to wait at least another year for compensation if they had decided to decline the settlement in favour of arbitration hearings. But theirs is just one of a number of claims against AASA and South Africa’s mining industry in general.
Leigh Day and Mbuyisa Neale are representing about 4 000 former miners seeking compensation from Anglo. They’re also helping about 100 miners in claims against AngloGold Ashanti.
AASA is also one of about 30 industry players facing a separate, massive class-action suit for compensation for tens of thousands of miners who contracted silicosis in the line of duty.
“These cases are typical of the circumstances of hundreds of thousands of South African miners who worked on gold mines for a century: underground, with very high dust concentrations and little protective gear,” said Meeran.
“These are circumstances where the industry was aware of the risk of silicosis, but where the measures taken to address this risk were wholly inadequate.”
For its part, AASA said it would “continue to work with industry, the government and civil society to tackle the many challenges of primary healthcare in South Africa”.
“Our collective objective is to significantly improve the access and quality of care available to all South Africans as well as ensuring a healthy and safe working environment for all our employees,” said Kweyama’s statement.
But with regard to the class-action suit, the company added: “AASA denies any liability and will continue to defend the class-action proceedings.”
For Motaung and his 22 fellow complainants, there is some immediate closure.
“As a health and safety officer, I saw so many who died from this disease,” he said on Wednesday.