By Eleanor Momberg
Former gold miners suffering from a debilitating lung disease want their former employers to compensate them for pain and suffering.
The case was brought by 10 former miners against the Anglo American Corporation in the Johannesburg High Court in August 2004. No date has yet been set for the trial.
This is billed as a test case by their legal team. If the eight surviving miners, and the widows of two who have died since the case was filed, win the R20-million they are claiming, the implications would be significant.
Mining houses have recruited migrant workers for decades from areas such as the former Transkei, KwaZulu-Natal, QwaQwa, Zambia and Mozambique. In the past 20 years an estimated one million workers have left the industry.
About half of these are believed to be living with the occupation-related lung disease silicosis, or phthisis (silicosis and tuberculosis).
Richard Meeran, a consultant to the Legal Resources Centre, has taken on this case.
Meeran made headlines when he successfully represented 7 500 South Africans in the London high court in a multimillion-pound damages lawsuit against British-based multi-national Cape plc for asbestos-related diseases contracted by miners and communities living close to asbestos mines and dumps.
In 2004 he was approached by former gold miners from Welkom to assist them with claims for compensation for silicosis and phthisis.
The miners claimed in court papers that Anglo American knew that silica dust inhalation could cause debilitating lung diseases and argued that their condition could have been prevented had proper health and safety measures, including the issuing of masks and the provision of adequate ablution facilities for black miners, been implemented.
They also charge that the company knew that levels of silica underground were often at such high levels that they posed a material risk to miners, and that preventive measures and required standards were consistently ignored, flouted or denied.
Meeran says that "due to the vast number of victims and the nature and circumstances of their disease, the case has significant implications, domestically, for South African workers and industry, and internationally for victims of multinationals".
He says the case has two aims: the establishment by the gold mining industry of a proper compensation fund for silicosis victims, and an effective system of medical monitoring against silicosis and TB for all former gold miners.
"Given the flagrant disregard shown in the past towards the health of black workers, and the ongoing suffering of thousands of victims, it is incumbent on the gold mining industry to establish these schemes without further delay."
Professor Shula Marks, in a paper on silicosis and respiratory disease in South African gold mining, describes silicosis as "a silent, creeping disease that only manifests itself once miners retire to remote villages".
The government's plan for the elimination of silicosis by 2015 highlights the same concerns, stating that research has shown that between 26 percent and 31 percent of former miners living in Thamanga village in Botswana, and between 22 percent and 37 percent of those living in Libode in the Eastern Cape, had silicosis.
"Generalising these rates to an estimated 2 million former miners living in southern Africa produces an astonishing 480 000 cases of pneumoconiosis," the plan says.
Dan Mofokeng, who started the ex-miners' silicosis sufferers support group in Welkom in 1999, approached the Legal Resources Centre for help in 2002 when miners were being refused proper care at the mine hospital.
"I was fed up. Some of these people had already been diagnosed … and management denied they were aware of the problem."
Mofokeng, a retrenched miner, claimed the mines had taken "a strategic management decision" to conceal the levels of silicosis among their employees. He led a protest to the Ernest Oppenheimer mine hospital in Welkom in an effort to force them to examine ex-miners and send the results to the medical bureau for occupational diseases and the compensation fund so that the miners could receive payouts.
"I have been to Lesotho and seen the misery. Because those ex-miners do not have access to medicine, they are unable to work. They are just repatriated when they get sick. They get a medical separation allowance, and that is it."
But, Mofokeng said, the problem was not limited to black miners.
"There are also white people, former mine officials, who have come to me."
He said some white miners did not use masks because they were underground for only short periods.
Meeran says this case holds many parallels with the asbestos case as both involve mining, rock blasting, manual labour, the liberation of dust, dealing with a dust type that is known to cause lung disease, and the failure of the company to take proper health and safety measures.
"The chronology of the hazard is also very similar. In this case, the mines and the government had specific knowledge of the dangers of dust and the fact that it caused silicosis. While the asbestos issue was subjected to litigation for years - since the 1960s - the gold mining industry has managed to escape justice."
Meeran says the gold mining conglomerates have been able to avoid direct payment of compensation until now because of the existence of the state compensation fund, which makes specific provision for payouts to silicosis sufferers.
Mofokeng noted: "The ex-miners have been neglected for too long. There are so many corpses, but the mines earn millions on the stock exchange."
Anglo American would not comment on the matter.