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A century of deadly mining dust: A timeline of SA's historic R5bn silicosis settlement

Jul 27 2019 14:14
Tehillah Niselow

Thousands of miners, ex-employees and dependents of deceased miners will finally receive compensation for suffering through tuberculosis or silicosis because of working underground in South African gold mines, following Friday’s historic court decision.

The Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg approved the settlement of a lengthy class-action lawsuit.

Six mining companies will pay out a combined R5bn in claims, with miners receiving between R70 000 and R500 000. 

Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica dust. The dust particles cannot be seen by the human eye, and if inhaled, can cause scarring in the lungs, which reduced their elasticity. This can also lead to a higher liklihood of tuberculosis.

Thousands of miners in South Africa and across the region have suffered from lung diseases because of working in gold mines, which, by their own admittance, did not pay enough attention to preventing dust.

Today mining companies are required to provide efficient ventilation, furnish dust plans to authorities and ensure employees wear personal protective equipment, including dust masks.

Fin24 looks at the history of occupational lung diseases in SA based on court filings and academic papers.  

1886

Gold mining begins on the Witwatersrand. 

1902

A commission is established to investigate the disease commonly known as "miners' phthisis" - a previous term for silicosis. Some 15% of miners examined were found to be affected by the lung disease. 

1967

An Investigation into tuberculosis in the mining industry is commissioned. It reaches the conclusion that “certain groups of African employees with a high risk of tuberculosis exist in the complements of the mines.” This was attributed due to defects in the X-ray screening system and the lack of protection against infection.

1993

The Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act of 1973 was deracialised, allowing for compensation payouts for diseases as a result of mining for all population groups. 

1995

The Leon Commission of Inquiry into Safety and Health in the Mining Industry finds no evidence to suggest “that occupational diseases had been adequately controlled by the industry as a result of the existing regulatory system". 

1996

The Mine Health and Safety Act is enacted, which places the responsibility of ensuring mines are safe and workplaces healthy on employers.

2004

Attorney Richard Spoor initiates test litigation on behalf of Eastern Cape miner Thembikile Mankayi who contracted silicosis at age 37. He worked underground at AngloGold Ashanti. The High Court and Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed the application for compensation.

2009 

A study by Wits University and University College, London, finds there are approximately 288 000 cases of compensable silicosis in SA.

February 2011

Amendments to the Mine Health and Safety Act include the right for any miner suffering from an occupational lung disease to claim for compensation.

March 2011

The Constitutional Court overturns a lower court decision and grants Mankayi the right to sue AngloGold Ashanti for damages after he contracted silicosis. This landmark judgement paves the way for a massive class-action suit from thousands of mineworkers suffering from occupational lung diseases.

December 2012

A class-action suit is filed in the Johannesburg High Court on behalf of Bongani Nkala, a 59-year old former mine worker and 30 other ex-miners. They ask the court for permission to undertake the litigation as representatives of all current and former gold mineworkers who contracted silicosis, as well as dependents of deceased mineworkers who died after contracting silicosis. Thirty gold mining companies are cited as respondents. The companies owned or operated 78 different gold mines from 1965 to the present, largely around Johannesburg and the Free State.

May 2016

The Johannesburg High Court gives the green light to a class action suit to be launched, saying it is the only realistic option to attain compensation for thousands of miners scattered around Southern Africa. 

The mining companies turn to the Supreme Court of Appeal to overturn the decision. There are reports that some of the mining houses plan to settle with claimants.

September 2017

While the appeal process is ongoing, six of the largest companies form a working group and are reported to have set aside a collective R5bn to try reach an out of court settlement. The companies are African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye Stillwater.

January 2018

The Supreme Court of Appeal approves the postponement of the litigation while parties continued extensive negotiations, to try settle out of court.

May 2018

The companies and miners’ representatives announce they have reached a settlement agreement which provides “meaningful compensation” to eligible workers who were employed by the six companies from March 1965 to date. This was the first class action settlement in SA.

May 2019

The parties ask the High Court to approve the settlement agreement. Affected miners are given notice they can object to the settlement and make representations to the court.

July 2019

The Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg approves the historic R5bn settlement agreement. Parties undertake to advertise the opt-out clause extensively over the next four weeks and affected miners will have another 60 days to fill in the opt-out forms, if they wish to sue the mining companies individually.

silicosis  |  sa mining
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