In court papers, the 24 men allege that they contracted silicosis while in the employ of Anglo-American South Africa Ltd. The case is the first of its kind in South Africa. One of Britain’s leading personal injury and human rights law firms, Leigh Day & Co is consulting for the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), which is representing the plaintiffs.
‘The litigation has two objectives. First, to compensate miners who contracted silicosis on the gold mines, and secondly, to deal with the problem of ex-miners whose health continues to be at risk of bouts of Tuberculosis’, said Richard Meeran, a lawyer from Leigh Day & Co.
The defendant in the test case litigation is Anglo-American South Africa Ltd., which is the former Anglo Head Office in South Africa. Anglo-American South Africa is now owned by Anglo American PLC in London.
LRC attorneys intend to send a strong message to the gold mining industry, which they say has ‘little regard for the health and well-being of black mine workers’.
‘The allegation is that Anglo-American South Africa Ltd., negligently advised the mines in terms of health and safety’, Meeran told a media conference.
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust. According to Tony Davies, a retired professor in lung diseases, silica is a common mineral found naturally in sand and rocks. Explaining how this disease manifests itself, he said:
‘In essence, silica dust occupies space that would otherwise be used for exchanging gases from the lung to the blood-stream or from the blood-stream to the lung. And as the surface area available gets smaller and smaller the person gets more and more breathless’.
Making an illustration, Prof. Davies said: ‘The victims are athletes who cannot run: They are muscular, they are not overweight, they have normal hearts, low blood pressures, regular pulse rates, (but) they can’t run. They can’t run because their lungs can’t exchange the necessary volumes of gas’, he said describing the debilitating effects of silicosis’.
Wokolo Mngeyane was a gold miner for Anglo-American South Africa Ltd. for seven years, until 1996.
‘I found out in 1997 that I had silicosis-induced Tuberculosis (TB), a year after I quit my job in the mines. I had a second bout of TB in 2008. I had to take treatment again’, he said.
The devastating effects of silicosis are far-reaching, affecting not only individual mineworkers, but families as well.
‘I’ve never been a mineworker’, said Nombulelo Matu, Secretary-General of the Ex-Mineworkers Union.
‘My father was a mineworker and died from silicosis. Moreover, just weeks ago I buried my brother who was ailing from the same disease’, Matu continued.
It has taken years for the case to be heard. Initial court documents were filed in 2004 and the first hearing is scheduled for next year. To date, the case has cost about R4 million. Legal AID South Africa is footing the bill.
Some of the victims of silicosis have died. Survivors are clinging on to dear life, hoping that they will still be alive when the case is heard.
‘This case stresses me a lot. Some people who were with us when we initiated this litigation are no longer alive. I have lost two friends. As it is now, I’m in pain. Perhaps my final hour is approaching. Waiting for the case to be heard in court causes more pain’, said Zonesele Blom, struggling to breathe.