Between 1979 and 1995, Thembekile Mankayi toiled deep below the South African earth, searching for gold. He contracted silicosis, an incurable disease that causes shortness of breath, chest pains and a relentless cough. The silicosis led to tuberculosis, and in 2006, Mankayi sued the mining company AngloGold. He died a few days before the country's highest court made its decision, but the judges agreed in principle that miners with ravaged lungs could get damages from their employers.
Today, that ruling is becoming reality. 40 percent of the gold ever produced came from South African soil, and the body count of our trinkets and timepieces hasn't been tallied. A century ago, the gold mining moguls helped pioneer the racist system that ensured cheap black labor. As Peter Robbins, former chairman of the World Gold Commission, wrote in 1991, "Gold and apartheid have been inextricably linked for 100 years."
Based on surveys of some mining villages, the Labor Department estimates that there may be 480,000 cases of silicosis in South Africa. Researchers call it an "epidemic." Richard Spoor, a provincial lawyer who got an asbestos company to pay out $100 million in 2003 -- the largest settlement ever paid by the mining industry -- is signing up 500 plaintiffs a week, he says.
If the class action suit comes together, and succeeds, the titans of African mining, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and AngloAmerican, could be out billions of dollars, reports Reuters.
Reuters conducted dozens of interviews with former miners, who said they were never told about the toxins in the dust, and were given only gloves and old T-shirts as protection. Surveys conducted by the National Centre for Occupational Health in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s found that less than a quarter of mines actually measured dust at all.
Spoor claims he has already rallied almost 7,000 ex-miners and widows, the vast majority of them black, from South Africa and neighboring Lesotho, whose lives have been blighted with disease and death because of the mining industry. Next he will be searching in Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, countries that shipped droves of men to South Africa's apartheid-era gold mines, and who helped build the nation into the wealthiest on the continent.
While new health guidelines were implemented in 2002, and the industry vowed that no worker after 2008 would succumb to silicosis, reports Reuters, a recent survey by the Mine Health and Safety Council found that dust masks were cheap, became soaked with sweat, and were almost impossible to wear for a full eight-hour shift.
Another survey found that two-thirds of miners had never heard of silicosis, just 3 percent had received training on dust management, and a third were functionally illiterate. Incidences of silicosis have actually been rising in the past few years, after dipping in the early 2000s.
South Africa was the first country to recognize silicosis as a disease, and one that entitled its victims to compensation. Whites, however, despite making up a tiny minority of workers, received the vast majority of compensation. And unlike workers in other occupations, the law barred sufferers from suing their employers, reports Reuters. The compensation fund is also so dry that many miners never get any money at all.
Lawyers for the mining companies will likely argue that it's impossible to attach blame to one mine or one company, that there was adequate protection, and that they were sticking to government guidelines anyway, so can't be held responsible.
Peter Major, a Cape Town mining industry analyst was incredulous. He told Reuters: "There are going to be payouts, without a doubt."
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