JOHANNESBURG / MASERU —
Five of South Africa's largest gold mining companies recently announced they will create a working group to deal with the issue of occupational lung disease.
This move comes as the sector faces what could be South Africa's biggest-ever class action lawsuit. More than 25,000 miners are seeking compensation from gold mining companies, saying they failed to protect them from Silicosis, a debilitating and incurable lung disease.
Back in his village in Lesotho, former miner David Maribenyane must rely on his home garden to feed his family. At 48 years old, he can't run or walk long distances, making it almost impossible to get a job.
Maribenyane has Silicosis, which he said he contracted working for more than 20 years underground in a gold mine in South Africa.
‘’I'm very angry at the mining houses. I came home empty handed and a cripple," said Maribenyane. "I'm worried about the future because I need to feed my family and to do so, I have to plow; now, I can't because of my shortness of breath.”
Crystalline silica dust
Silicosis is caused by breathing crystalline silica dust -- a human lung carcinogen -- found in mines. It causes shortness of breath, general weakness and increased susceptibility to tuberculous. It cannot be cured.
Maribenyane is one of tens of thousands of former miners who’ve joined a class action suit filed by three South African law firms in an attempt to hold 30 of South Africa’s gold mining companies liable for the Silicosis.
"These box files are the files of the individual clients," said Richard Spoor, who is one of the attorneys.
"Silicosis is not a new thing. It's a very old disease. It's very well understood for a long, long time," he said. "There have been laws to protect miners for a hundred years. Those laws are very simple, they say 'you may not expose workers to harmful quantities of dust. You may not do that, it's against the law'."
The class action suit came about after Spoor won a ground-breaking case three years ago in which a former miner successfully sued his employer for negligence which led to his contracting Silicosis.
Building the case is taking time. Many of the affected miners are from neighboring countries. So they must be tracked down, screened for Silicosis and informed about their option to join the class action suit. In Lesotho, that's the job of Isaac Shafiq, from the Mineworker Development Agency, or MDA.
"Mostly they do not know that they have Silicosis. Most of them go for screening in our local health facilities. But the result is always TB. It doesn't go further to determine if it's actually Silicosis or what," said Shafiq.
Mining companies are challenging the class action, claiming the cause of Silicosis is up for debate. For former miner Mokete Bokaako, however, the connection is obvious.
"I've never worked anywhere else than in the mines. I'm like this because of the mines and I believe that the mines owe me something," he said.
Bokaako said he only found out about his lung condition a few years ago after he was retrenched, came back home to Lesotho and was screened by the class action campaign.
"I’m angry when I think that we had a health checkup every 6 months, or every year, and the mining company never told me I had Silicosis," said Bokaako.
In November, five of South Africa's biggest mining companies said they would create a working group on occupational lung disease. In the meantime, a ruling on whether the class action suit can proceed is expected in October 2015. It is estimated that one in four current and former gold mineworkers have contracted Silicosis.