Anglo American has been sued on two continents by miners wanting to be paid out after falling ill due to exposure to dangerous levels of dust.
Mongezi Mponco left his village of grassland hills as one of hundreds of thousands of healthy young black men who poured into the deep underground of South Africa’s gold mines.
The 54-year-old continued working when diagnosed with early incurable lung disease until he was fired after 30 years, in a story traced on thumb-worn papers kept in his home off a rutted dirt road in the Eastern Cape.
“Thank you for your loyal service and all the best,” advised the termination letter to the father of six who has certified silicosis scarring of the lungs.
But the best has not materialised for Mponco and hundreds of other former mineworkers who now want mining giant Anglo American to pay up for exposing them to dangerous dust levels.
The London-listed firm’s South African subsidiary is being sued on two continents in cases that could run into millions of rands in damages.
A seven-year case with 18 claimants is nearing trial in South Africa, and a class action recently filed in Britain has more than 700 claimants and is still collecting names.
“We’re averaging around about 100 now per month,” said Zanele Mbuyisa, an attorney working on the mass suit, who criss-crosses rural areas meeting potential clients.
Generations of poverty
Rural Eastern Cape has long supplied workers to what were the world’s richest gold mines which burrow up to nearly 4km below the earth’s surface.
Silicosis is caused by inhaling gold mining dust and can rest dormant for years before permanently scarring the lungs.
Black miners working in often unsafe conditions during apartheid were hard hit, with one study citing prevalence of up to 32% in deceased black miners.
The former miners return home with battered health to their villages to eke out a survival, unable to support their families, and often falling under the radar for medical examinations and compensation.
“The economy in South Africa, as it is, was built by ex-mineworkers. We are who we are in terms of the economy because of those men,” said Mbuyisa.
“Yet two things came out of that: you had generations of wealth for the mine owners and generations of poverty for the workers. That doesn’t seem fair does it? And that’s how I personally look at it.”
Wealth for mine owners, poverty for workers
At 54, Zwelinzima Mfenyana looks years older since getting sick in the early 1990s after 13 years underground. He followed other men to the mines aged 16 and his family now live off just over R500 in two monthly child welfare grants.
“I’m old now and I want my money that I worked for that wasn’t given to me,” he said in a round traditional thatched rondavel hut.
South Africa’s Constitutional Court in a landmark judgment this year cleared the way for sick ex-mineworkers to sue companies directly.
Ex-miner Thembekile Mankayi had claimed damages of R2.6-million from AngloGold Ashanti who had handed him a pay-out of R16 320. He died just days before the ruling but his attorney has also indicated possible mass action.
Deeply rooted in Africa’s biggest economy, Anglo American South Africa is the country’s biggest private employer with profits running to billions of dollars.
The company denies responsibility as the claims involve companies in which its South African wing had minority interests.
“Anglo American does not believe that it is any way liable for the silicosis claims brought by former gold workers and is defending the actions,” said the company.
“Anglo American maintains that these gold companies which employed the mineworkers were responsible for the health and safety of their employees and took reasonable steps to protect them.”
‘We need help’
But lawyers argue that the giant was the parent company to many operations.
“A lot of mines fell under them, so because a lot of the ex-miners come from there, it would only make sense for you to sue them,” said Sayi Nindi of the Legal Resources Centre, which is acting for the 18 claimants.
Their case was filed in 2004 on behalf of a widow and 17 miners, of which three have since died. Anglo is providing treatment to the remaining miners.
In the mass suit, names are still being collected.
“But whether or not their claims can be pursued will depend on medical confirmation of silicosis being obtained,” said Richard Meeran, attorney with London firm Leigh Day acting for the miners.
Part of the mass suit, Mponco received a 97,000-rand pay-out in 2008 after his illness escalated from the first diagnosis and left him legally medically unfit to work.
“What was I supposed to do? I was told that it was first degree and to continue working,” he said.
“What the mine is doing to us is very painful. We are in a very difficult situation. We need help.”
“I want them to pay me my money,” he added. — AFP