About half of South Africa’s gold miners suffer from silicosis, a life-threatening disease caused when silica from gold lodges in the lungs. Now, thousands of gold miners have signed on to the largest class action lawsuit in Africa’s history. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Michael Cohen, a reporter covering the story for Bloomberg News in Capetown, South Africa.
GELLERMAN: Now, from small-scale gold mines in Nigeria we go to the massive mines in South Africa, which has long had the Midas touch. Over the past century forty percent of all the gold that’s been mined has come from South Africa. But all that glitters is definitely not gold. The rock that bears gold contains silica, which lodges in lungs. And it’s estimated half of South Africa's gold miners suffer from the life-threatening disease silicosis.
Now there is a class action lawsuit, the largest in Africa’s history. Michael Cohen is a reporter covering the story for Bloomberg News. Welcome to Living on Earth, Michael.
COHEN: Hi, thanks for having me on the show.
GELLERMAN: So Michael, how big a problem is there in South African gold mines?
COHEN: The issue actually is no one really knows. There were thousands and thousands of miners who worked in South African mines and who contracted silicosis, this scarring of the lungs. The estimates range as high as almost 300,000 people who might have contracted the disease. The mining companies clearly have a big problem on their hands.
Oryx gold mine near Welkom, South Africa.
GELLERMAN: But they've been mining in South Africa for decades and decades and decades. Why the problem now?
COHEN: Mining companies have said that they have complied with the safety laws needed to look after their miners. And now a couple of lawyers have picked up on it, saying, no, you didn't. And the whole thing came to a head last year when South Africa's highest court ruled that miners had the right to sue their mining companies for compensation in addition to that covered by the state compensation fund.
Up until that point, the mining companies had always argued that under South African law, miners were limited to claiming that limited compensation. So that argument has now been put aside and that has opened the way for these lawsuits.
GELLERMAN: But it seems ironic, it was back in 1911, more than a hundred years ago, that South Africa became the first country in the world to pass a law that recognized the need to compensate miners for silicosis.
COHEN: Sure, but I think the way the laws were structured were pretty prejudicial to the miners themselves. The amount of compensation that was paid out was pretty small amounts. For instance, the miner who won this compensation case in South Africa's highest court last year, a guy by the name of Thembekile Mankayi, who died, actually, just before the ruling, won a settlement, I think it was slightly more than two thousand dollars. He wanted to sue the mining company for substantially more than that. And that court case has now opened the way for substantially bigger settlements.
GELLERMAN: I saw some online videos of mining in South Africa, some very new ones, some very old ones, and I don't see any of the miners using masks or respirators. They're using wet bandanas and t-shirts.
COHEN: Certainly some of the miners that I've spoken to who've worked in the mines a long time ago said the safety procedures that were utilized were substandard. They weren't being given masks and so on. I think things have substantially improved over the past couple of years. They pump a lot more compressed air into the mines and settle the dust much more effectively and I think we've seen over the last little while the number of new cases has decreased substantially. So certainly the mines have taken steps to address the problem. It was a lot worse in the past. The safety procedures were substandard.
GELLERMAN: So there've been hundreds of thousands of miners potentially contracting silicosis in these mines, but as I understand it, only a couple of thousand have signed on to this class action lawsuit, even though it is the largest in Africa's history.
COHEN: Class action lawsuits are not commonplace in South Africa. This is going to set new legal precedents here. And they are in the process of signing up people. The last time I checked a couple of weeks ago they had reached a number of almost 7,000 people.
As I said, it's very difficult to know how many people we're talking about. The last comprehensive study I looked at was from 1998, and then they estimated that there were 196,000 miners from South Africa and just over 84,000 from neighboring countries who were potentially claimants. A lot of these people are no longer working, they're situated in rural areas, they might not know about the lawsuit, they might not have the information, maybe even too sick to participate, and some of them have, of course, died.
The National Union of Mine Workers estimated that nearly 5,400 miners died between 2003 and 2009 from respiratory illnesses. So there's an active recruitment process to bring people into the lawsuit.
GELLERMAN: What role, if any, does apartheid play in this? It ended nearly twenty years ago, but does it have a role?
COHEN: I think certainly. I mean, a lot of apartheid laws were structured in such a way to ensure that the mines were able to supply cheap labor. A lot of the occupational disease laws were formulated to protect mining companies. The miners, largely, were black, had very few rights and very little scope to contest this. A lot of these cases date back to pre-Apartheid, people working underground who were doing so pre-1994 and are still living with the disease today. Certainly apartheid created the conditions for substandard working conditions.
GELLERMAN: How have the mining companies responded to this lawsuit?
COHEN: Defensively, so far. Most of them are saying they complied with the law at the time, that they're not liable, that they will defend any action. They're saying they're going to defend it in court. I think we're talking about substantial amounts of money here.
GELLERMAN: How big is gold mining today in South Africa?
COHEN: It's still a major employer. It's fallen off quite a lot since the heyday in 1983, but still one of the major sources of export revenue. And it's a very mature industry, an industry in decline, production has been falling for a number of years. It presents the government with somewhat of a problem, because you've got this industry which is in decline. They understand the miners' complaints and they are concerned about inadequate compensation and at the same time you've got an industry which still employs a lot of people and you could potentially destroy it if the claims are too big.
GELLERMAN: Michael Cohen is a reporter covering the story about gold miners in South Africa for Bloomberg News in Capetown. Michael, thanks a lot.
COHEN: My pleasure. Cheers.
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