Why silicosis judgment is important

(iStock)
(iStock)

Johannesburg - The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and SECTION27 welcomed the judgment handed down by Deputy Judge President Mojapelo on Friday in the South Gauteng High Court in the case of Bongani Nkala and 68 others against Harmony Gold and 31 Others.

The groups regard the judgment as an important step toward what they deem as providing just compensation for the many thousands of miners who contracted silicosis or tuberculosis on South Africa’s gold mines.

The South Gauteng High Court has allowed the claimants to proceed with a class action seeking damages from mining companies for lung diseases they contracted while working at their operations.

The court certified two classes, namely gold miners and former gold miners who have contracted silicosis and those who have contracted TB. The class criteria require that a person worked underground in the mines for at least two years since 1965 and contracted either disease.

The lawsuit, unless settled, will have to proceed to trials in which common issues relevant to all class members will be determined.
 
"Today’s judgment is also important for all vulnerable people in South Africa. A class action is a powerful mechanism by which poor or vulnerable people can access justice. It is, however, not commonly used in South Africa," the TAC and SECTION27 said.

"This judgment helps those who do not have resources on their own to pool efforts in order to access justice. It recalibrates the balance of power to give the poor a better chance of holding the powerful to account."

The TAC and SECTION27 emphasised that, while the judgment is important in its own right, it also has far reaching implications "for the prospects of the poor who seek to challenge the powerful". The court’s ruling is also important for women and children who survive mine workers.

After the ruling, a representative of claimants, Charles Abrahams said  the ruling is a major victory and also sends out a very important signal to mining companies and potentially other industries "that courts are very serious about SA's constitutional democracy and about protecting the rights of the most vulnerable".

"The is potentially still a long road forward. We trust the mining companies will take heed. No more mine workers have to die," he said.

At the same time, a group of six mining companies issued a statement to caution that it is important to note that the court finding enabling a silicosis class action does not represent a view on the merits of the case brought by claimants.

The collective statement was on behalf of the Occupational Lung Disease Working Group - representing African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony and Sibanye Gold.

The companies said they are studying the court’s decision and each company is yet to decide whether to lodge an appeal against the finding.

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