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Opinionista

Some mining companies deny historic justice for sick and dying mine workers

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Father Stan Muyebe is Director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

The mistreatment of mine workers during the apartheid era continues to have far-reaching consequences. Sick and dying mine workers are holding on to life as their legal battle, now raging for more than a decade, continues.

Humans Rights Day in South Africa is commemorated annually on 21 March in remembrance of the 69 people protesting against apartheid “pass” laws who were shot dead by the police in Sharpeville on this fateful day in 1960.

We are reminded of the sacrifices that our comrades and fighters had to make so we could enjoy our freedom and rights today. As South Africans, we are blessed to have a progressive Bill of Rights and the aspirations contained therein.

As we commemorate Human Rights Day, it is important that we also remember the importance of Workers’ Day, which is commemorated on 1 May. It marks the efforts of trade unions and other parties to achieve equal employment standards for everyone.

We also remember another tragic event that took place in Chicago in the United States on 1 May. The lesser known Haymarket massacre saw scores of workers, skilled and unskilled, take to the streets between April and May 1886 calling for eight-hour workdays, fair labour practices and occupational social security. The strike led to clashes between the police and workers, which saw several deaths and injuries when a bomb was thrown into the crowd.

Social security is a basic human right and relates to everyone’s right to access social security in events or situations where they are unable to support themselves and their dependants. This right is outlined under Section 27(1)(c) of the South African Bill of Rights.

The importance of social security is underpinned in the Haymarket affair, as well as in the commemoration of both Human Rights Day and Workers’ Day in the interests of fair labour practices and the pursuit of social justice – locally and globally.

In light of both these events, I would like to bring attention to the South African government’s outreach campaign for current and former mine workers to receive appropriate compensation. 

This comes after the success of the historic and uncapped silicosis settlement between the class action legal representatives, the Legal Resources Centre, Abrahams Kiewitz Attorneys and Richard Spoor Inc Attorneys, and the settling mining companies, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Harmony, Gold Fields, Sibanye-Stillwater and African Rainbow Minerals, which was approved by a full Bench of the High Court in 2019.

Briefly, the class action was brought on behalf of thousands of surviving mine workers and the dependants of thousands of mine workers who suffer and have died from silicosis and tuberculosis.

The diseases were a result of prolonged exposure to excessive levels of silica dust while working on the gold mines. Nineteen of the respondent mining companies, which represent the largest gold producers in South Africa, reached an historic settlement in 2018. This provides for an uncapped amount of compensation for all qualifying mine workers and their dependants.

The silicosis settlement in 2019 established the Tshiamiso Trust which aims to compensate eligible mine workers and their dependants for occupational lung diseases and unemployment sickness benefits.

The Compensation Commissioner for Occupational Diseases also announced unclaimed benefits worth R10-billion, while various mining provident funds hold unclaimed funds for eligible members.

There are also other occupational disease trusts looking for eligible former mine workers. While the initial estimate is R10-billion, the final sum may be higher due to additional unpaid social security entitlements.

However, the mistreatment of mine workers during the apartheid era continues to have far-reaching consequences. DRDGOLD and East Rand Proprietary Mines (ERPM), subsidiaries of Sibanye-Stillwater, are the only mining companies that have persisted in litigating this matter. Their persistence has devastating effects as sick and dying mine workers hold on to life in a legal battle now raging for more than 10 years and spanning decades of mining activity.

We must address this tragedy.

First, we must ensure that people are aware of their constitutional rights. We need to empower unions, educate employees and hold employers accountable. We also need to take it a step further to challenge unscrupulous companies and their lawyers when they delay fair settlement.

In 2023, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that the silicosis class action must proceed and that DRDGOLD and ERPM must go to court.

We call on DRDGOLD and ERPM to act in good faith in the interests of South African society, and settle their historic debts to mine workers made sick in their mines as a result of working in unsafe conditions. 

May we always strive for justice and peace for all, especially for those who have been marginalised and oppressed. DM

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