May 16, 2016 (GIN) – For years, the dust in South Africa’s gold mines has been accumulating in the lungs of black miners, choking them with silicosis, tuberculosis and other fatal conditions.
Yet courts there have refused to hear their cases as a class, forcing their legal teams to take them into the courtroom one by one.
Now, in a huge victory for sick workers, thousands of gold miners will be able to proceed with their claims against 30 gold producers as a class. Among the employers who face prosecution are AngloGold Ashanti, HarmonyGold, Gold Fields, Anglo American and African Rainbow Minerals.
Dependents of deceased miners will also benefit from the new ruling.
“As miners we were not helped and protected even though our employers knew we were going to get sick. I am happy and relieved that the court’s decision is in our favor,” said Mthobeli Gangatha, a former gold mine worker living in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape. Gangatha is a class representative in the litigation who has been diagnosed with silicosis.
According to the suit, some 30 gold mining companies, who owned or operated 82 different mines from 1965 to the present, knew of the dangers posed to miners by silica dust for more than a century but willfully ignored and/or failed to execute almost all of the steps mandated in regulations and legislation designed to protect miners from the deadly dust.
The suit further claims that the mining industry was able to profit, for decades, at the expense of employees’ health. The miners are from South Africa and other countries including Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland.
South Africa is one of the world’s largest gold producers, dating back to the 19th century when mineral riches in southern Africa turned hundreds of immigrants into millionaires. Among them was Cecil Rhodes, a white supremacist and an architect of apartheid, whose statue was finally removed from the University at Cape Town last year after a “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign by student activists.
“I’m very happy with this judgment,” said Vuyani Dwadube, 74, who listened from a back bench in the courtroom. He and other former miners walked out of the court building with their fists raised in victory, while supporters sang and danced on the street outside.
“We’ve been suffering for a long time, and that’s why it’s so important to us,” he said. “The judgment gives us the right to stand up in court and get our rights.“
The court cited testimony by former miners about dangerous working conditions and widespread abuses by their employers, including mining companies giving them ineffective masks and telling them to wear the masks only when inspectors were visiting.
“It was really hurtful that the employers didn’t want this case to go ahead,” Mr. Dwadube told the Globe and Mail newspaper. “But the way the judges intervened gives me great comfort.