GroundUp Op-Ed: Will South Africa’s gold miners get justice? – by Marcus Low (Daily Maverick South Africa – October 12, 2015)

The landmark silicosis class action lawsuit in South Africa has thrown up some similarities between the history of the country’s gold mines and the violent history of the rubber trade in the Congo. Over decades, South Africa’s gold mines systematically exposed their mostly poor and black workers to dangerous levels of silica dust knowing it would kill them.

In King Leopold’s Ghost, the historian Adam Hochschild uncovers the horrors committed in the Belgian Congo in the years before and after 1900. It is a history of slavery, murder and mutilation – anyone who’s seen the pictures of piles of cut-off hands cannot but be horrified by it.

Rather than just focusing on “the horror”, Hochschild zooms in on the courageous individuals who stood up against this cruelty. These are people like George Washington Williams, a black American journalist who travelled to the Congo in the late 1880s, and ED Morel, who dedicated much of his life to exposing the atrocities to the British public and to changing public opinion.

King Leopold’s Ghost recognises and bears witness to the atrocities in the Congo. Atrocities like these are too easily forgotten, too easily reduced to boring facts and figures. Bearing witness to such cruelties inflicted on others affirms our humanity. We should remember the victims of King Leopold just as we remember the victims of the Holocaust or apartheid.

Recently, doing some work on the landmark silicosis class action lawsuit here in South Africa, I was struck by the realisation that the history of our gold mines has similarities with the history of the rubber trade in the Congo. Of course, we did not have anything close to the same number of murders. Nor was their cutting-off of hands. But our gold mines, over decades, systematically exposed their mostly poor and black workers to dangerous levels of silica dust knowing it would kill them.

Estimates vary, but probably as many as 20% of workers in South African gold mines over the last five or so decades developed silicosis. That adds up to hundreds of thousands of men – most of whom have already died.

The historian Jock McCulloch has shown that the history of silicosis in South Africa is deeply interwoven with our history of racial discrimination. Long before 1948, black miners were treated according to different rules than their white counterparts. While it is clearly a story of race, it is also one of commercially driven colonialist exploitation. In short, gold mines made loads of money for both mining companies and the state.

If this meant ruining the lungs of hundreds of thousands of mostly poor black men, that was a price they were willing to pay. The specific conditions around silicosis and the gold mines made it easy for them to get away with it – the workers involved had little or no access to justice, existing compensation systems were severely dysfunctional, and, unlike severed hands, silicosis develops slowly and the scarring is hidden inside the body.

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