File image: IOL.
CAPE TOWN - In a landmark case, thousands of former gold mine workers who contracted silicosis and tuberculosis from South Africa’s underground shafts signed a R5 billion out-of-court settlement with mining companies yesterday.

The compensation comes from the R5bn set aside by six gold mining companies last year to settle the country’s biggest civil suit in South Africa and finally solve a 100-year-old problem that has ravaged the health of thousands of mineworkers.

The out-of-court settlement was signed by five gold mining houses in Johannesburg yesterday, bringing an end to the class action that was brought against them by thousands of mineworkers who inhaled silica dust while underground in mines.

AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Anglo American South Africa, Sibanye-Stillwater, African Rainbow Minerals and Harmony Gold Company last year set aside the R5bn for the victims. Pan African Resources is still considering the settlement.

Graham Briggs, convener of the Occupational Lung Diseases working group, said the out-of-court settlement brought certainty to the case, which dates back to 2006.

“A settlement of this nature brings certainty as well as a solution. It also brings payouts sooner than class actions and litigation processes,” said Briggs.

Almost all the claimants are from South Africa, as well as neighbouring Botswana, Lesotho Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Malawi.

Officials announced yesterday that each employee who suffered from silicosis would be eligible for up to R500000 each. Those who suffered from TB would be eligible for up to R100000 in compensation.

Human rights lawyer Richard Spoor, who represents 30000 former employees, said the out-of-court settlement meant a balancing act for the claimants.

“We had pressure to settle quickly and pressure not to settle cheaply,” said Spoor. Legal Resources Centre (LRC) and Abrahams Kiewitz also represented the workers.

The LRC said the settlement provided an opportunity to receive a medical examination and much-needed compensation for ex-mine workers and has allowed an alternate to extended litigation and the risks inherent to that approach.

Trade union Solidarity said the settlement would be a booster for former miners who are suffering from one or both lung diseases. It is subject to a court process.