SA court to decide on class action suit against gold sector

The ruling could mark the start of lengthy proceedings if it decides that the class go ahead.

FILE: Supporters of the sick former mineworkers outside the Johannesburg High Court. Picture: Gia Nicolaides/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - A South African court will decide on Friday whether to allow class action suits seeking damages from the gold mining sector on behalf of thousands of miners who contracted tuberculosis and the fatal lung disease silicosis.

The defendants in the case include Harmony Gold, Gold Fields, AngloGold Ashanti, Sibanye Gold, African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) and Anglo American, which have formed the Occupational Lung Disease (OLD) Working Group to deal with such issues.

The case is separate from a $30 million silicosis settlement with 4,400 miners reached in March by Anglo American and AngloGold.

Friday's court ruling could mark the start of lengthy proceedings if it decides that the class actions - one for silicosis, the other for tuberculosis - go ahead.

The suits, which have little precedent in South African law, have their roots in a landmark 2011 ruling by the Constitutional Court that for the first time allowed lung-diseased miners to sue their employers for damages.

"We are hopeful and we trust that the court will arrive at an appropriate decision," Charles Abrahams, one of the lawyers representing the miners, told Reuters.

Companies are not directly commenting on the case but in March the OLD Working Group said, "While the mining companies will defend the legal claims made against them, protracted litigation is not in the interests of any of the parties."

It added, "The issue is also wider than pure compensation. The companies have not only committed to the prevention of future cases of silicosis as well as the detection and treatment of current ones, but have invested significant resources to ensure that these commitments are realised."

Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks. It causes shortness of breath, a persistent cough and chest pains, and makes people highly susceptible to tuberculosis.

The claims, which stretch back decades, involve not just South Africans but also thousands of former miners from neighbouring countries such as Lesotho.

This is why Anglo American, which no longer has any interests in gold mining, and ARM, which no longer operates gold mines, have been named in the claims.