South Africa miners' legal action
Gold miners who worked under apartheid in South Africa seek damages for lung disease.
Last Modified: 19 Oct 2009 10:38 GMT

Shadrack Temaramotsoane, right, is one of 22 miners suing Anglo American for alleged negligence which they say led to them contracting silicosis during the 1960s and 1970s

Lesotho is one of the region's poorest countries. Landlocked within South Africa, it is also heavily reliant on South Africa for economic survival.

It was also in this context that thousands of workers from Lesotho were forced to find work in apartheid South Africa in previous decades. Many would end up in gold mines, including Shadrack Temaramotsoane.

Temaramotsoane goes by foot to a clinic in Lesotho's capital, Maseru, more often than he would like.
It is clear that he is sick. This time, as before, the phlegm sample he leaves behind for further examination has specks of blood swimming within it.

Although he drilled for gold in a South African mine for many years, his fate has been anything but glittering.

He wants compensation from Anglo American. "I find that my life is destroyed now, my health... I'm like a dead man now," he says.

Lung disease

Temaramotsoane is one of 22 former gold-miners suing Anglo American for alleged negligence which they say led to them contracting silicosis between 1960 and 1980. They claim the mining company is responsible for their cloudy, diseased lungs by issuing negligent safety advice.

It was becoming clear that many miners such as Temaramotsoane returned to Lesotho with more than just their paltry earnings from their more affluent neighbour. They went back with silicosis - a disease which permanently damages the lungs.

It is caused by repeated exposure to silica dust, usually deep down in the mines. It could very easily have been prevented by the simplest of measures, such as providing safety dust masks.

Former miner Mongezi Hempe says only blacks were sent into the President Steyn mine

Tseliso Nkete lives 70km south of Temaramotsoane in a small village near Mafeteng. He worked at a mine for 29 years. Buried beneath the soil of the simple, idyllic land here, lie other miners, who worked at the same mine.

"I have two friends who worked with us in the mine at President Steyn who were sick," he says, motioning to his chest. "They passed away."

I also travelled north to Welkom in South Africa, to the mine itself. Some of the older road signs surrounding it still point to President Steyn Mine. It is now under new ownership and decades have passed since Anglo American's involvement.
In fact, Anglo American never owned more than a 50 per cent share of the President Steyn mine. In an written statement the company says: "The claimants were not employed by Anglo American SA as suggested by certain media reports."

That is not disputed by the miners' lawyer, Jason Brickhill. Brickhill says Anglo American is being taken on by the miners not for their ownership of the mine, but rather for being in charge of providing safety advice for at least two decades.

'Racial element'

Mongezi Hempe also worked in the mine; he lives just a stone's throw away from President Steyn. He pointed out the looming structure to me from his one-room shack.

Hempe revealed a racial element to the way things operated at President Steyn. Unsurprising, perhaps, because this was during the apartheid era, but it does suggest that discrimination played a crucial part in who would become ill, and who would not.

"There were no white miners working under the mine, it was only blacks, whites never went down," he says.

"Anglo American believes that President Steyn Gold Mining Company, which employed the mineworkers and was responsible for their health and safety, took all reasonable steps to protect them"

Statement issued by Anglo American

Asked if they were ever given safety masks, he says: "They only gave us safety masks when the big guys, the inspectors, came. Afterwards they took it away."

Anglo American disputes all the allegations against it and those who were directly in charge of President Steyn mine as well.
In a written response, the company says: "Anglo American believes that President Steyn Gold Mining Company, which employed the mineworkers and was responsible for their health and safety, took all reasonable steps to protect them."

The miners' lawyer hopes to set a precedent with this case.

"We obviously have to take very seriously the responsibility of running this case, which is a test case, and the interests of many thousands of ex-gold miners rests on the outcome of this case."

Whether the miners are simply digging up unwelcome ghosts from a different, racist era remains to be seen.

The answer in this potentially David vs Goliath story may come in August 2010 when the case goes to court.

Al Jazeera
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