South Africa has always been known for its lucrative gold mines. In the process Johannesburg even became known as the City of Gold. But not all that glitters is gold, as miners have found out at a cost.
The case of South African current and ex-mineworkers who contracted tuberculosis (TB) and silicosis–a degenerative lung disease linked to exposure to silica dust in gold mines–working in the country’s gold mines, resumed at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Monday. The case was first filed in 2012. 56 of the estimated 100,000 miners are persuading the court to allow them to institute a class action lawsuit against 32 gold mining companies. On Monday, legal representatives of the miners addressed the court, while those representing the gold mines will state theirs after the 14th of October.
Mining came at a huge cost for mineworkers. Over the years, 100,000 of them contracted silicosis, TB and other respiratory diseases. Miners in South Africa are said to have the highest rates of TB infection in the world, ranging between 3,000 and 7,000 per 100,000 people. This is four and seven times higher than the general population of South Africa, the country with the second highest TB rates in the world.
Richard Spoor, the attorney representing the miners, says because the future of these miners was totally destroyed, a class action is therefore the only way to ensure all the affected miners and their families are compensated.
"A typical victim was 20 years old and he came to the mine a young healthy man. He was physically injured and his lungs were damaged. He was unfit for further employment. He contracts that disease. He gives it to his wife. He gives it to his children."
According to AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), half a million men travel from across the southern African region to work in South Africa’s mines every year. In doing so, they contract TB as well HIV. This pattern of men arriving at the mines to work, becoming infected with TB and returning home again, has created an enormous public health crisis throughout the region.
"We are saying, this is a group case. All of these people need to be included, and that is in the interest of justice, and that is in the best interest of the workers, and in fact we believe it’s in the best interest of the mining industry as well," Spoor added.
The accused gold mines prefer to set up of a compensation fund under the country’s current legislation. "We are in talks, which we hope will lead to the establishment of a legacy fund. It’s not in the company’s interest and we don’t think it is in the claimant’s interest, to engage in a court case that could cost hundreds of millions of Rands in legal fees for another ten, fifteen, twenty years," said Alan Fine, who represents the mines.
However, Spoor rejects this proposal, saying that it has constantly failed the miners. "It doesn’t work and the compensation is hopelessly inadequate. It has been like that for decades, and the industry has been aware of it and it’s suddenly now with litigation that they have suddenly shown interest in trying to resurrect it."
Meanwhile, two non-governmental organizations have been admitted into the class action as friends of the court in support of the miners. Up to a thousand civil society organizations members are marching to court on Tuesday, in support of the affected miners.
South Africa’s mine industry has suffered several setbacks ranging from sinking commodity prices, rising costs and labor unrest, forcing a number of companies into mine closures and layoffs. In August, South Africa's mining industry, unions and the government committed to a broad plan to stem job losses, including boosting platinum by promoting the metal as a central bank reserve asset. The mining industry contributes around seven percent of South Africa's GDP.