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13 May 2016 14:47
Treatment Action Campaign and Sonke Gender Justice activists joined demonstrations in support of the miners' silicosis case High Court in Johannesburg on October 13, 2015. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
South Africa gave the green
light on Friday for class action suits seeking damages from gold
companies for up to half a million miners who contracted the
fatal lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis underground.
The High Court decision sets the stage for protracted
proceedings in the largest class action suits in Africa’s most
industrialised country. Analysts have said the suits could cost
the gold industry hundreds of millions of dollars.
Judge Phineas Mojapelo said workers who had died of the
diseases could be included in the suits, with any damages paid
to family members, and that each mining company should be held
liable separately for any damages.
“We hold the view that in the context of this case, class
action is the only realistic option through which most mine
workers can assert their claims effectively against the mining
companies,” Mojapelo said in a unanimous ruling by three judges.
“Mining companies will be held liable or responsible for
their own actions for unlawful emissions,” he said.
Some miners walked out of the courthouse triumphantly with
fists raised, while activists sang and danced outside.
“This will make a difference in our lives, because we have
been struggling for so long,” said Vuyani Dwadube, 74, a former
rock driller who worked at Harmony Gold and suffers
In their heyday in the 1980s, South Africa’s gold mines
employed 500,000 men, and some medical research suggests as many
as one in two former gold miners has silicosis.
Silicosis is an incurable disease caused by inhaling silica
dust from gold-bearing rocks.
It causes shortness of breath, a
persistent cough and chest pains, and also makes people highly
susceptible to tuberculosis.
The defendants in the case include some of the world’s
biggest bullion producers, who have been hit by a slide in
commodities prices and widespread labour unrest among miners.
The defendants include global miner Anglo American, Africa’s top bullion producer AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Sibanye Gold
and African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) which have
together formed the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) working
group to deal with such issues.
Alan Fine, a spokesman for OLD said in a statement the gold
companies were studying the judgment and each firm would decide
whether to appeal the court ruling.
“Either way, it should be noted that the finding does not
represent a view on the merits of the cases brought by
claimants,” Fine said.
DamagesShares in the gold companies shares were mixed following the
ruling, some tracking a stronger price for the precious metal.
“Certainly it will have an effect on their reserves.
“It’s still too early to say what it will be (the damages)
but it does create a lot of uncertainty and that is never good
for share prices,” he said.
There is little precedent in South African law for the class
action suits which have their roots in a landmark 2011 ruling by
the Constitutional Court that for the first time allowed
lung-diseased miners to sue employers for damages.
The claims stretch back decades and involve not just South
Africans but thousands of former miners from neighbouring
countries such as Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland.
That is why Anglo American, which no longer has any
interests in gold mining, and ARM, which no longer operates gold
mines, have been named in the claims.
Friday’s ruling is separate from a $30-million silicosis
settlement with 4,400 miners reached in March by Anglo American
and AngloGold. - Reuters
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