Civil society groups push for entry into silicosis case
Health and gender activists are likely to know by the week’s end whether they will be able to testify in what could be the country’s first class action case against the gold industry.
A 2011 Constitutional Court judgement involving Nozuzile Mankayi’s husband, Thembekile, ruled that current and former mine workers could institute claims against the mines for occupational diseases. Thembekile died a week prior to the ruling. Nozuzile and other widows have joined the class action suit in hopes of compensation.
The South Gauteng High Court yesterday reserved judgement on whether the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Sonke Gender Justice will be allowed to appear as friends of the court in what could be the county’s first class action against the gold industry.
Represented by public interest law organisation Section27, TAC and Sonke are pushing to be admitted as friends of the court ahead of an October hearing that will determine whether the landmark class action suit against about 30 gold mines is allowed to move forward.
Lodged by Richard Spoor Attorneys, Abrahams Kiewitz Inc and the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), the class action aims to win compensation for up to 200,000 miners affected by silicosis or tuberculosis (TB) and their families. However, first the South Gauteng High Court must rule in October to accept the class action.
TAC and Sonke Gender Justice say that, if accepted, they will provide testimonies showing that silicosis and TB not only affect miners and families, but also larger communities. Sonke argues that, by effectively sending sick miners home to die, the gold industry shifts the burden of caring for their workers to rural women and girls.
“We are interested in the private and hidden lives of women and girls because they really carrying the burden of these really sick mine workers who are no longer able t continue learning a living in the mines,” said Tanya Charles, Sonke Gender Justice Policy Development and Advocacy Specialist. “This is the story of how gold mining impacts on women, girls and communities.”
Judges ask civil society, mines for time table
The majority of mining houses have opposed the civil society bid. During two days of litigation, teams representing Anglo America, Harmony Gold and Gold Fields argued that TAC and Sonke’s testimonies failed tests for novelty and relevance. With the larger silicosis class action already having dragged for three years and created more than 5,000 pages of court documents, mining houses also argued that the addition of more testimonies would cost them and the court time and money.
But Judge Bashir Vally chastised mining houses for citing costs as a concern while no less than eight legal teams were representing the companies. However with about six weeks until the court is due to decide whether the class action can continue, judges acknowledged that time was a major concern.
They have asked TAC, Sonke and the mining houses to present a timeframe that could accommodate the admission of new civil society evidence by Wednesday afternoon.
Section27 Executive Director Mark Heywood told Health-e News that while he did not want to try to predict the future, the judges’ request for such a timetable could be a sign that TAC and Sonke have made strong cases for their inclusion.
[quote float= left]If the class action is not certified then for tens of thousands of mine workers the matter is literally dead”
Heywood said that not only could the class action help shape future actions against, for instance, the pharmaceutical industry, it was also likely the only hope for justice for many who could not afford to litigate individually.
“In this country, we have access to justice in theory, not in practice because people can’t afford justice,” he said. “If the class action is not certified then for tens of thousands of mine workers the matter is literally dead.”
Silicosis is a lung disease arising from exposure to silica dust during mining that can appear decades after people are exposed to the dust. About a quarter of long-serving miners have silicosis, according to statistics cited by the LRC.
The high burden of silicosis among South African miners has also helped to fuel a deadly epidemic of TB that has been raging for decades. By 2007, the Department of Health estimated that the country’s gold mining industry had the world’s highest rate of new TB cases. – Health-e News.
An edited version of this story also appeared on Health24.com