South Africa: dying for justice

South Africa

South Africa’s High Court recently ruled that 27,000 goldminers with silicosis, an incurable lung disease, could collectively sue their former employers.

The miners’ relief, however, was short lived. The 32 gold-mining firms have appealed against the ruling, causing delays that will mean many miners will not live to see justice.

Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks. Often fatal, it causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough and chest pains, and also makes its victims highly susceptible to tuberculosis. About a quarter of long-term goldminers in South Africa are thought to have developed the disease.

Should it come off, this will be the largest class-action law suit ever to take place in the country. And the gold-mining industry could be forced to pay up to $3.4 billion in compensation.

However, delays caused by this latest appeal – the fight for adequate compensation has spanned 15 years – will mean some miners will never see justice done.

‘These miners are dying. They are frail. It is very sad,’ says Charles Abrahams, of Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys, who is representing the miners in the class action.

‘The death rate of the victims is increasing as they are increasingly older,’ agrees Richard Meeran, an attorney at Leigh Day, who represents victims of silicosis. ‘It is important a settlement is reached for the class-action claimants.’

The gold-mining firms – which include the giants Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, and Sibanye Gold – are opposing the suit on the grounds that the victims are not similar enough to be regarded as a ‘class’.

But miners’ lawyers say that multiple lawsuits would ultimately cost the companies more, arguing instead for a speedy out-of-court settlement.

The cause of the disease has been known since the early 1900s. Mines in other countries, such as Germany and Canada, virtually eliminated silicosis decades ago by implementing safety measures. In South Africa, however, these measures were not adopted.

Katie McQue