Test case may cost mines billions

Anglo American plc has offered medical treatment to 14 former miners, who have brought a test case against its South African subsidiary, but it won’t accept liability for the silica dust levels in apartheid-era gold mines that the former workers say caused their debilitating respiratory tract infections.

If the test case succeeds it could open the door for tens of thousands of former mine workers to claim damages from companies such as Anglo, resulting in compensation payouts worth billions of rands.

Cynthia Carroll, Anglo American’s chief executive, announced at the company’s annual general meeting in London on Thursday last week that Anglo “will make proposals to the claimants’ attorneys to provide appropriate medical treatment for the claimants insofar as they do suffer from silicosis or silico-tuberculosis”.

“This proposal will be made on humanitarian grounds, without any admission of liability,” she said.

Silicosis is a progressive, incurable condition, the effects of which take several years to become apparent, sometimes long after a miner has left employment. It weakens the lungs and increases the sufferer’s chances of contracting tuberculosis and silico-tuberculosis.

Lawyers representing the former mine workers argue that the mine’s former parent company, Anglo American South Africa, knew of the long-term respiratory effects of exposing miners to silica dust but failed to advise adequately its subsidiaries operating the mines.

The miners are suing Anglo American South Africa in South Africa and the case is expected to be heard early next year.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian from London this week, Richard Meeran, the attorney advising the claimants’ South African legal team, said the former mine workers he was representing were “the tip of an iceberg”.

“I would have thought that it is incumbent upon the industry to assist all ex-mine workers with medical treatment and access to the statutory compensation system,” he said.

Meeran and the Legal Resources Centre have been putting the test case together since 2004. In that time the number of litigants has dropped from 18 to 14.

One of the claimants, Alpheus Blom, travelled to London last year for Anglo’s AGM and pleaded with Anglo chairperson, Sir John Parker, to set up a silicosis and tuberculosis monitoring and treatment and compensation scheme for all former mine workers.

“This claim [the test case against Anglo] could help my quality of life,” said Blom. “However, I am worried that I may die before it is over.” He was too ill to travel to this year’s Anglo AGM.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre’s. www.amabhungane.co.za.

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