Why South Africa's gold miners are suing their bosses

Tens of thousands of gold miners are suffering with diseases like silicosis, tuberculosis and HIV. In the mines, Apartheid lives on.

Florence Goddard
28 October 2015
Silicosis 3.jpg


You may not have heard about it yet, but right now 59 South African gold miners are making history.

The miners and their families are currently suing the miners’ former employers - 32 mining companies including Anglo American and Gold Fields - for how their work has shattered their health. 

Silicosis is a fatal lung disease caused by inhaling the silica dust found in gold mines. It gets worse over time. Symptoms include a persistent shortness of breath, weakness and tiredness. Many sufferers are unable to walk more than a short distance or even get out of bed. Tens of thousands of former miners have contracted it, and it led to the debilitation and deaths of many. On top of this, the unsafe conditions of the mines and the HIV prevalence in South Africa has resulted in the worst tuberculosis (TB) epidemic in human history. 

For the families and communities of these men; the emotional, physical and economic impact of caring for their loved ones has been equally as horrendous. Many ex-miners have died already without compensation, leaving their widows destitute. The conditions of many others are so severe, some may not survive to see the end of the case. 

For years miners in South Africa and all around the world have been treated as disposable labour; sent into the mines until they are no longer well enough to work. They have been given no healthcare or compensation for injury. 

In the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, the case against the mining companies was heard between the 12th and 23rd October. It’s yet to be confirmed when the judgement will be delivered, but if the case is successful it’s estimated the amount of people who will benefit from the lawsuit could be around 200 000.

59-year-old Myekelwa Mkenyane is one of the miners who testified in the case. He worked in four mines between 1975 and 2009. He said: 

“I was provided with a small respiratory mask by my former employers once a week, but I found it difficult to wear this because it restricted the airflow in to my lungs. Only the workers in the parts of the mine with the highest concentration of dust would be provided with masks and the masks were only provided when the conditions were especially dusty.”

Myekewla was diagnosed with silicosis in 2003. Despite this, he continued to work until 2009 when he suffered a stroke: 

“As a result of having silicosis, I find it difficult to breathe, I have to stop when I walk long distances, I have a constant pain in my chest; and I cough for long periods of time. I have trouble washing myself and eating. I have little quality of life and I am unable to get a job to support my family.”

As an activist with the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS and ACT UP London (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), I campaign on issues surrounding the international response to HIV/AIDS on a daily basis. South Africa has one of the highest prevalences of HIV in the world - and it is even higher amongst the poorer sections of society such as those of the miners. According to the Treatment Action Campaign, the prevalence of HIV amongst the miners is around 14% higher than in the general population.

Even with access to crucial medicines (and not all have access), people living with HIV often have weaker immune systems and are at a far greater risk of contracting TB. Combine this with silicosis and the risk becomes even higher; 15% of HIV-positive, silicotic mineworkers develop TB each year. For people with these conditions and living in very close quarters, TB is highly infectious. This has led to unprecedented levels of TB amongst the mining communities.

The World Health Organisation considers an incidence of 250 cases of TB per 100,000 people to be a ‘health emergency’. But in the South African gold mining industry, the rates were between 3000 and 7000 cases per 100,000 people.

Throughout the Johannesburg trial, activists gathered to support the miners in their struggle. Anele Yawa, General Secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, who are providing support to the miners and have been admitted to the court as ‘friends’ of the miners, said:

“For decades South African and multinational gold mining companies have knowingly allowed their workers in South Africa to be exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust. They did this because they could get away with it. We demand these companies be held accountable. We demand justice for every single mine worker whose life has been ruined by silicosis." 

In solidarity with the the miners and their families I joined campaigners from STOPAIDS and ACTSA (Action for Southern Africa) to protest outside the London offices of Anglo American, one of the companies responsible for the miners' ordeal. Up until 1998, Anglo American was the largest gold mining company in South Africa. With current net assets of US $15 billion, they have made their fortune through exploiting their workers during the Apartheid period. Yet they still refuse to take responsibility for the pain they have caused.

During the case, representatives for the mining company Gold Fields argued that they were not responsible for the high levels of TB experienced within the mining community. They blamed it on other factors such as age, HIV and alcohol consumption. Not only is this untrue (it has been proven that the high levels of TB are a direct result of the miners’ living and working conditions), it speaks to the toxic neoliberal rhetoric of individualism, where there is no such thing as systems of oppression or imperialism, and to be born poor and black has no bearing on how the rest of your life might turn out. 

These miners did not want to end up with TB, HIV or silicosis. They did not make ‘poor life choices’. Their lives and experiences have been shaped by the world they live in. This is not to say they don’t have agency: the case itself is proof that they have made life-changing choices. But when all the cards are stacked against you, even the most fundamental rights have to be fought for.

This case is representative of everything I am fighting against in my work. In a world where leading pharmaceutical companies will openly admit to developing life-saving treatments for ‘rich Westerners’, it’s no wonder that companies such as Anglo American and Gold Fields have got away with it for so long.

The way that hundreds of thousands of South Africans have been treated epitomises the way in which people living in the Global South are treated by big businesses and corporations. From clothes factories in Bangladesh, to Apple warehouses in China, the world’s poor and disadvantaged are consistently treated as if their lives don’t matter. They’re simply a tool to be exploited for maximum profit.

Protests and demonstrations might not seem like they achieve much but they allow us to reclaim the narrative that maintains hostile distinctions: between black and white, poor and rich, North and South, even if just a little bit. Solidarity actions show groups such as the miners that we see them and we support them, even from the other side of the world. For the cynics, it’s also true that as white westerners, corporations and governments may be more likely to pay attention to us. But mostly its about recognising that we all have common interests, needs and emotions, regardless of what part of the world we live in or how our society may treat us. When some of us are hurt we must fight for them just like we would fight for anyone else.

If the miners win they will be making an important step in challenging this brutal system of oppression. It will be the largest class action to ever be certified in South Africa and will set a precedent for similar future cases.

It will allow the many thousands of people whose lives have been devastated to access justice. Something which, 20 years after apartheid, they shouldn’t have to fight for.

To find out more about the case see ACTSA, TAC and GroundUp and follow the hashtag #silicosis on Twitter. 

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