Silicosis agreement a milestone judgment for ordinary people

Mbuyiselo Botha Gender Imbizo
Former mineworkers and their families celebrate the milestone R5bn agreement with gold mining companies to compensate workers who contracted silicosis, an incurable lung disease. /Thulani Mbele
Former mineworkers and their families celebrate the milestone R5bn agreement with gold mining companies to compensate workers who contracted silicosis, an incurable lung disease. /Thulani Mbele

Last month, after a lengthy legal process spanning almost six years, the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg ruled in a landmark settlement that former gold miners affected by silicosis be compensated.

This agreement means the miners, dependants of deceased miners and former employees, will be compensated for exposure to silica dust in South African gold mines since the 1960s. Silica causes breathing problems and susceptibility to TB and other lung diseases.

The R5bn settlement, to be paid by six companies to the miners in sums ranging from R70,000 to R500,000, is merely a projection and can rise depending on the number of claimants that come forward.

As I ponder on the merits of this settlement and the players involved in this legal battle, I cannot help but think of the David vs Goliath Biblical anecdote in the book of Samuel.

Whether you are religious or not it is hard not to draw parallels between the courageous, fearless and wilful David from the Bible with the gold miners that persevered and achieved what seemed impossible, and of course the Philistine giant Goliath portrayed by the mining giants.

According to some legal heads and pundits alike, the agreement in favour of the gold miners highlights a slow but apparent shift not only to the accessibility of the courts, but also, people's perceptions of the law, and most importantly how people mobilise legally, if at all.

The change in tune comes mainly from the fact that the prevailing sentiment not only in South Africa but worldwide is that the law is monolithic, magisterial and can be manipulated to one's advantage, particularly those who have the means.

As historic and promising as this judgment is, it is important to not get carried away. While we can celebrate the fact that the affected families will be receiving what is rightfully theirs, it is hard to not lament the state of both our legal system and the mining industry.

While we laud the agreement, we should also be privy to the nature in which the agreement was reached, particularly how long it took for the gold miners to get what is rightfully due to them.

Some of the miners, unfortunately, are no longer alive to witness this judgment due to the negotiations needlessly dragging on for years despite the matter looking like an open and shut case. I am by no means implying that court rules of court process be bent.

I am merely implying that courts should deal a more forceful hand when there is a clear case of human rights violation.

Apart from the legal system, the settlement agreement shines light on a very dark side of the South African mining industry.

The SA mining industry has a very long, rich and dualistic history. The dualism can be laid out thus: On the one side, is what is hailed as the "Golden Years" of the country's mining industry - the 1980s. In this period SA became one of the world's largest exporters of coal.

On the other side, like in the 1980s, the country's mines are still built on the backs of black, poor and exploited working class.

A working class that is given the run-around when their health is compromised by the state of the mines; a working class that is gunned down when protesting for better working conditions and pay. How can we forget the tragedy of August 16 2012?

It is appalling how little attention is given to the miners compared to the actual mines. The centrality of the mines in growing our economy is shoved down our throats every day, and with good reason, but not a lot is being said by the cogs that make the machine tick - the workers.

I urge the mining companies, various stakeholders and government alike to overturn this apartheid legacy.

The mining space is unnecessarily exploitative and unsafe. Should the different players continue to turn a blind eye to what is a glaring violation of human rights, the mining industry will find itself losing much more than the R5bn.

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