Updated 11 September 2015

Small win in silicosis suit that is set to rattle SA's gold industry

The high burden of silicosis among miners has helped to fuel a deadly epidemic of TB, but an upcoming hearing could pave the way for hundreds of thousands of miners and widows to lodge claims against the South African gold industry.


A high court has ruled to allow civil society groups to give evidence at a hearing that could pave the way for the country’s first class action suit against the gold industry.

In October, the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg will determine whether a class action suit pitting former miners who contracted silicosis and tuberculosis (TB) – and their widows – against the gold industry will go forward.

Read: High court reserves judgement as civil society groups push for entry into silicosis case

Aids lobby group the Treatment Action Campaign and gender activists Sonke Gender Justice won the right on Friday to present evidence as friends of the court at the October hearing. The pair argued their testimonies show that silicosis and TB not only affect miners and families, but also communities and the public health system.

What is silicosis?
Silicosis is a degenerative lung disease arising from exposure to silica dust during mining. Symptoms of silicosis include shortness of breath, chest pains and persistent cough. The disease can appear years after exposure, and researchers believe it may increase the risk of TB among miners.  

By 2007, the Department of Health estimated that the country’s gold mining industry had the world’s highest rate of new TB cases.

Image: Activists celebrate at the Treatment Action Campaign and Sonke Gender Justice have been admitted as friends of the court in the landmark silicosis case against the gold mining industry.

TAC and Sonke welcomed Friday’s decision. TAC Gauteng Provincial Co-ordinator Stephen Ngcobo said the organisation felt confident that miners and their families now stood a chance at seeing justice.

Read: 15 facts you need to know now about Tuberculosis

“Women and children have had to suffer because of the mines,” said TAC Gauteng Provincial Chairperson Sibongile Tshabalala. “We know now that justice will be served in South Africa.”

Following the unanimous decision by three High Court judges, the mines will have to work on a mutually agreed upon tight timeframe to introduce new evidence to avoid delaying the October court date.  

Current law “prejudicial and detrimental” to widows

While the majority of mines cited in the class action opposed the civil society groups’ entry into the case, the three legal teams representing miners and widows supported the friend of the court bid.

Attorney Richard Spoor is one of the lawyers representing miners and their families. He said he believed TAC and Sonke testimonies will help rural women access the kind of compensation that South African law until now has denied them.

According to Spoor, South African law allows for very little compensation for women like Nozuzile Mankayi, whose husband Thembekile died of silicosis. Thembekile died a week before the Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that he and miners were entitled to seek compensation from the mines.

Counting the costs

“If a man is sick with silicosis or silco tuberculosis he often becomes disabled for many years and eventually dies,” Spoor explained. “His claim for general damages, loss of earnings and medical expenses is not transferable to his widow. Her only claim is for loss of support.”

“If he was older than retirement age, which in mine work is about 60, then she has no claim for loss of support,” he added. “The time, energy and money that she has expended in caring for him and the loss to the household and family is not recoverable.”

“The evidence put before the court by TAC and Sonke pertains to the impact of the disease on women, the burden of care and the risk – their very real risk – of contracting TB,” said Spoor, adding that research indicates that about four percent of former miners with silicosis die annually.

Nozuzile has never received any compensation and is now part of the potential class action suit.

Giving hope to many

If the class action is allowed to proceed and is successful, it could pave the way for hundreds of thousands of miners and widows to lodge claims against the South African gold industry. However, Spoor admits that widows will face difficulties proving their men died of silicosis when men have not undergone health screenings on mines or have been sent home to die after becoming sick.

While South Africa’s statutory compensation scheme dictates that the heart and lungs of former miners be removed upon their deaths to provide cause of death information this largely only happens if men die while on the mine.

“For workers who go home to die in Lesotho or the Eastern Cape, the number whose organs are submitted for exam and certification is trivial to the point of vanishing,” added Spoor who is representing the miners alongside the Legal Resources Centre and Abrahams Kiewitz Inc.

Defying traditional cultural norms

Nozuzile had her husband autopsied after his death, something that defied traditional cultural norms, she said. It was a painful decision and one that she has sometimes regretted, she admitted in a 2013 interview. Without Thembekile’s autopsy results however, the family would have lacked the kind of documentation needed to joining the class action.

Silicosis can only be diagnosed via x-rays. With little access to that kind of screening in rural communities, former miners like Thembekile often die without being diagnosed. This leaves women without the evidence they often need to claim compensation and even a succesfull class action will not change that.

“It is a problem and we don’t know of any quick fix for that,” Spoor said. “The secret is better healthcare provision and more extensive support to mine workers so they can be diagnosed.”

“Men die without being diagnosed and that’s an on going problem,” he added. “Through the litigation, one of the things we hope to focus attention on is the need to improve the network of facilities were workers can be examined and diagnosed… not only fixed facilities but also mobile facilities that can travel into rural areas to look for these people and help them.”

Also read:

Is TB spinning out of control in South Africa?

Tutu: TB toll in SA is disgraceful and unacceptable

Can you get TB from animals? 

Image: Lungs from Shutterstock

Health-e News is South Africa’s award-winning dedicated health news service producing news and in-depth analysis for the country’s print and television media.


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Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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