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Long and winding road: Claims process in SA silicosis settlement now under way - Daily Maverick

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The class-action suit, spearheaded by human rights lawyer Richard Spoor, was launched in 2012. An initial settlement of R5bn was reached in May 2018 and finally approved by the courts in July 2019.

The processing of claims in the historic R5-billion class action settlement on behalf of gold miners who contracted the incurable lung disease silicosis is now up and running, the trust managing the payments said on Tuesday. It is a long and winding road, but justice is starting to be served for a historic wrong that literally left those wronged breathless.

Seven claimants have already been paid in a pilot project and now general claims are being processed, trustees of the Tshiamiso Trust told journalists during an online press briefing on Tuesday. The logistics and administrative tasks are mammoth, which explains why the trust, launched last year, has an initial 12-year life span. It hopes to have its work wrapped up before then.

The class-action suit, spearheaded by human rights lawyer Richard Spoor, was launched in 2012 and an initial settlement of R5-billion was reached in May 2018 and finally approved by the courts in July 2019. The R5-billion, which the six mining companies involved have already set aside, is an estimate. The final payout figure could be higher or lower depending on the certification of claimants.

"The wait since May 2018, and since the establishment of the trust in February 2020, has been a source of frustration for our prospective claimants, many of whom are old, and ill,"Professor May Hermanus, the trust's chairperson, told the briefing.

As of 28 February, 2,402 claims have been lodged and 408 medical examinations have been conducted on applying claimants, the trust's CEO, Daniel Kotton, said.

The numbers involved are staggering and speak to one of the South African mining industry's many pernicious legacies. About 1.3 million people are estimated to have worked in the gold mines of South Africa, which have produced around a third of the precious metal in recorded history. This laid the foundations for Africa's most industrialised economy, but was built on the brutal exploitation of a mostly migrant labour force whose wages were depressed for decades.

The health and safety of this workforce was not a pressing boardroom concern so long as the dividends kept flowing. An untold number of gold miners from the far-flung reaches of the rural Eastern Cape, Lesotho, Mozambique and other places contracted silicosis by inhaling silica dust from gold-bearing rocks. Silicosis is an incurable lung disease. This is a historic wrong that has literally left those wronged breathless. But it is at least being righted now. 

In total, about 650,000 miners worked for the six companies involved in the suit over the period of time covered. Not all would have contracted the disease and only a fraction of that number will be paid out – the final tally is unknown at this stage. The payments will range from R10,000 to R250,000 depending on a range of factors, and, in exceptional cases, payments as high as R500,000 could be made. Financial advice and financial literacy training will also be provided for claimants.

There are now 50 claims centres in South Africa and neighbouring countries – a reflection of the historically migrant nature of the labour force – and the target is to have 150 set up, given the scale of the task.

There have also been attempts by fraudsters to bilk claimants out of money by offering to assist them with processing their claims in exchange for a fee. No claimant needs to pay a cent for the trust's services.

Updates on the trust's progress can be followed on its website: Tshiamiso Trust – Compensation for silicosis and TB

The six companies that were party to the suit are Harmony Gold, Gold Fields, African Rainbow Minerals, Sibanye-Stillwater, AngloGold Ashanti and Anglo American. The latter no longer has bullion assets, but historically was a gold producer. DM/BM

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