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Class action against gold mines goes ahead

The family of Thembekile Mankayi, the miner whose law-suit against former employees AngloGold Ashanti paved the way for this week's announcement of a worker's damages claims against gold mining companies that is potentially worth "tens of billion of rands" has yet to receive any financial succor.

Mankayi's lawyer, Richard Spoor told the <em>Mail & Guardian </em>that AngloGold Ashanti had "refused" an out-of-court settlement and that his case had now been attached to the larger lawsuit announced by attorney Charles Abrahams in Gauteng this week.

Mankayi, who had worked underground from 1979 to 1995 had contracted silicosis at the age of 37 which prevented him from working further and was seeking R2.6-million in compensation. He received a R16&nbsp;320 pay out at the time he stopped working.

Mankayi tragically died a week before a landmark Constitutional Court judgment in March last year. In a unanimous decision, the court had found that miners could seek compensation in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act and were not just restricted to the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act – which provides for less compensation &ndash; if it was proved that they suffered, specifically, lung diseases contracted because of company's negligence in ensuring sufficient health safeguards.

Spokesperson for AngloGold Ashanti, Alan Fine, said he was unable to respond to M&G queries as to why the multi-national had refused to enter into a settlement with the Mankayi family as he was unable to contact AngloGold's legal counsel.

<strong>Risk of illness</strong>
Abrahams announced at a press conference on Tuesday this week, that papers had been filed in the South Gauteng High Court against AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, and some of its subsidiaries, including Patrice Motsepe's African Rainbow Minerals, in a preliminary step to determine whether a class action suit could be brought against them.

Spoor said that lung diseases were especially common in gold mines and iron ore smelters and that the lawsuit could open up companies like Arcelor Mittal, Highveld Steel and the gold mining giants to huge damages claims: "This could also change the dynamics of ventilation in gold mining especially, where companies mine very deep and refrigerated oxygen is required…Ventilation at deep level mines currently accounts for about 30 percent of costs so they will have to decide: can they keep subsidizing the cost of mining with the costs of workers' lives," said Spoor.

There also appears an opportunity for lawsuits in the currently beleaguered platinum mining industry. According to Gill Nelson at the Wits School of Public Health, who has conducted research on health issues affecting platinum miners, silicosis, a respiratory illness is the main health threat. But the threat is not as serious as it is in gold and coalmines because the levels of silica dust in platinum mines are lower. As a result, platinum mines have focused more on safety than on health issues and little is done to mitigate the risk of silicosis.

On the proposed class action suit, Goldfields spokesperson Sven Lunshe, referred the <em>Mail & Guardian</em> to the company's latest quarterly results released this week which stated: "Gold Fields has 10 court days to decide whether to oppose the application and thereafter, in the usual course of action, a further 15 court days to file papers opposing the application. Gold Fields and its lawyers are busy studying the application and will in due course decide how to respond."

AngloGold Ashanti spokesperson Andrew Fine released a press release stating that the company was "currently reviewing the claim instituted by Charles Abrahams in South Africa's South Gauteng court today and will respond through the appropriate court procedures."

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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