South Africa: Landmark Silicosis Case Reaches a Milestone – by Sibusiso Tshabalala (All – February 6, 2014)

The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) hosted a special event on 5 February 2014 to highlight its landmark silicosis case and the implications for future legislative and policy reform in South Africa. The meeting took place as part of the 5th Alternative Mining Indaba.

For ten years, the Legal Resources Centre has represented 24 former miners who worked for Anglo American Mines. The miners, who come from some of Southern Africa’s most rural areas, had worked in Anglo American mines between 1970 and 2000 and had contracted silicosis.

Silicosis is an incurable but preventable lung disease. It is caused by prolonged and severe inhalation of silica dust particles.

The prevalence of silicosis in South African mines can be traced back as early as 1903 to the Miners’ Phthisis Commission (Milner’s Commission) which deplored the unsanitary underground conditions in the mines as being “conducive to contracting infectious diseases”.

The Legal Resources Centre has worked in partnership with human rights interest firm Richard Spoor Inc., Abraham Kiewietz Attorneys, and a London based specialist law firm, Leigh Day.

National Director of the Legal Resources Centre Janet Love said that it was clear that South African [gold] mining operations were on the path of shrinkage, and that occupational diseases were often neglected by the mining companies.

“While we gather here at the Alternative Mining Indaba, we know that many South African mining companies are now moving to other regions like Latin America.

We want to make it known that this cannot be our future. Companies mining in and out of this country should be held accountable for their liability,” said Love.

During the litigation process, the LRC proved that the dust levels in most Anglo American South mines exceeded internationally accepted standards.

Advocate Richard Moultrie, in-house counsel for the Constitutional Litigation Unit of the Legal Resources Centre, has worked on the case since 2005.The silicosis case had many factual complexities.

“This was not a straightforward legal matter. We had to work closely with experts to prove that Anglo American had been negligent in the way they had measured and attempted to keep dust levels at a minimum,” he said.

During the case, it emerged that Anglo American had relied on old-fashioned dust sampling methods. Anglo American had installed a gravimetric dust measuring system in the 1990s; 20 years after most countries had changed their dust-sampling methods.

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