Thousands of South African and migrant workers, including Namibians blighted by silicosis have finally received a small measure of justice after six of South Africa’s largest mining companies agreed to a historic $400m (N$5 billion) fund
for workers stricken with lung diseases from their time labouring on the world’s largest gold-bearing reef.
The compromise agreement was reached last week, six years after workers first sought compensation.
The settlement agreement covers thousands of South African gold miners and those from neighbouring countries and the dependents of workers who developed or will develop tuberculosis and silicosis caused by exposure to silica dust while working in the gold mines.
One of the officials who worked on the class action lawsuit, Alan Fine told the Windhoek Observer this week that the settlement covers all miners who worked at the mines of the six companies party to the agreement.
“Of non-South Africans, the largest number would be from Lesotho, then Swaziland, Mozambique and Botswana,” Fine said.
Namibia was illegally occupied by South Africa until independence in 1990, and thousands of Namibians worked in mines in that country.
Most of the miners were recruited through the South West African Native Labour Association (SWANLA), an oppressive labour recruitment organisation which enlisted primarily people from northern Namibia to work within Namibia and South Africa.
SWANLA, which was established in 1943 during World War II to appease the rising demand for cheap labour, was disreputable due to its exploitative use of contract labour and rampant reports of human rights abuses among those employed in the mines.
The gold companies that form part of the settlement agreement are African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye Stillwater.
This is the very first class action settlement of its kind in South Africa.
The settlement agreement creates a Trust to compensate all eligible workers suffering from silicosis and tuberculosis who worked in these companies' mines from 1965 to date as well as their dependents.
It includes a significant budget for the Trust to locate potential class action members, medically examine eligible miners and provide compensation to all who qualify.
"I am pleased with this settlement. We have managed to provide access to justice and meaningful compensation to thousands of current and former gold mine workers and their dependents spread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa," said Motley Rice attorney Michael Elsner who has been a consultant in the South Africa litigation since the beginning and was one of the lead settlement negotiators.
Silicosis is caused by breathing in crystalline silica dust, which comes from the common mineral known as quartz. Individuals with silicosis are three times more likely to develop tuberculosis, which is already at epidemic levels in South Africa.
Silicosis is irreversible, progressive and incurable.