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S. African Miners Seek Class Action Suit Against Gold Mines

FILE - Miners gather on a hill during their strike at the AngloGold Ashanti Mine in Fochville near Johannesburg, South Africa, Oct. 19, 2012.

An estimated 100,000 current and ex-miners in South Africa are seeking permission to pursue a class action lawsuit against 32 gold mining companies. The miners say they contracted the lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis in the mines. Hundreds of people marched to the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg in support of the miners.

Marchers came out in the hundreds to support the affected miners, most of whom say they were dismissed from work after contracting the respiratory illnesses, silicosis and TB.

Sixty-one-year old Bangumzi Palakisa worked for 25 years in several gold mines before he was diagnosed. In 1999, he was dismissed from work and given a package that he calls “peanuts.”

He says TB and silicosis rendered him and he cannot walk a long distance because of breathing problems. He says the miners are sitting at home and cannot afford to send their children to school, and they want compensation.

Palakisa is one of 56 plaintiffs representing the miners and asking the Johannesburg High Court to grant them permission to sue the gold mining companies.

Spokesperson Patrick Godana of Sonke Gender Justice, one of several civil society groups at the march, says those companies have to take responsibility for miners who contracted disease on their watch.

“They are sent home to go and die," said Godana. "They become a burden of care to their wives and their daughters. The call to the mine owners, we are saying look after the mineworkers who have contracted silicosis and pay them accordingly.”

Inside the court, lawyers representing the miners argued a class action suit will enable justice for all the affected miners, including those who cannot afford legal representation. But the mining companies argue each case should be considered individually.

The court will continue to hear the arguments until October 23.

This is the first attempt to institute a class action lawsuit in South Africa. If the court allows it, experts say mining companies could face a payout of up to $3 billion if found liable.

The miners say they will not give up.