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Miners to Launch South Africa's Largest-Ever Class Action Suit

  • Anita Powell

FILE - The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) President Joseph Mathunjwa speaks to striking mine workers at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, June 23, 2014.

FILE - The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) President Joseph Mathunjwa speaks to striking mine workers at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, June 23, 2014.

South Africa’s High Court gave the go-ahead Friday for as many as half a million miners and ex-miners to file a class action suit against 32 gold mining companies. The miners say they contracted the lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis working in the mines.

“Historic” is how Charles Abrahams, a lawyer representing the miners, describes the court’s decision to allow South Africa’s largest-ever class action suit to proceed.

He spoke to VOA from the steps of the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg shortly after the ruling.

“I think that what this means is that law, in the context of the social struggle of people and particularly, in this context, mining communities, can play a very important role in advancing the struggles through the right litigation. And today we’ve seen, that this is exactly what happened today,” said Abrahams.

A three-judge panel ruled Friday that hundreds of thousands of miners and their families can seek redress from some of the world’s largest gold mining corporations after they contracted painful, often-deadly lung diseases in the mines.

The panel split the case into two classes: those who contracted silicosis and those who contracted tuberculosis.

A group representing the mining firms said in a statement that the companies are studying the ruling and will decide individually whether to lodge an appeal.

Abrahams says he’s confident of victory in the class action suit.

But, he notes, today’s victory is bittersweet. The case’s original plaintiff, Thembekile Mankayi, died of silicosis a week before the Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 to allow his precedent-setting case to proceed. That case developed into today’s class action.

“Hopefully through today’s judgment, Mrs. Mankayi and Mr. Mankayi’s children and his dependents could look forward to some form of compensation from the mining company for which Mr. Mankayi worked ,” said Abrahams.

Abrahams says that this is not just a legal victory, but a social victory for South Africa’s workers who have long fought for justice and equality during and after the racist apartheid system. Taking the struggle from the streets to the courts, he says, is a sign of progress.

The lawsuit, however it proceeds, is likely to have an economic impact. South Africa's statistical agency says that mining accounts for more than 8 percent of the nation’s economy.

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