Richard Meeran discusses how AngloGold Ashanti are failing to treat silicosis-afflicted former gold miners with “dignity and respect”

This week the silicosis public health scandal that afflicts black South African former gold miners was graphically shifted from the remote and hidden regions of the Eastern Cape to the very doorstep of AngloGold Ashanti. At the same time, the public relations statements of the company "to treat each other with dignity and respect" and "to put people first" were put to the test.

Twenty-seven ex-miners who have been diagnosed with the dust-related lung disease, silicosis, were transported on behalf of AngloGold for fifteen hours non-stop in minibuses from remote areas of Eastern Cape to Carltonville.

There they were to be medically evaluated at AngloGold’s West Wits Hospital. Following their gruelling journey the miners, whose average age is sixty-two, were accommodated in unheated cell-like hostels. They were allocated beds with no sheets, no pillows and only two small blankets. The temperature that night dropped to two degrees centigrade.

In the ensuing days one of the ex-miners, aged 74, had to be taken to hospital by ambulance, where he remains. Three other miners have also been hospitalised. Two have tuberculosis, one of the men is in isolation.

The twenty-seven are part of a group of thirty-one lead claimants who, as part of a claim involving some twelve hundred ex-miners are suing their former employer, AngloGold, for damages.

Four of the ex-miners’ co-claimants could not make the journey to Carltonville; one because he was too sick to travel and three others because they have died since the case began in August 2012.

Black South African gold miners were employed in the dustiest jobs, without adequate protection and with scant regard for the long-term health effects of the dusty conditions in which they worked.

Published studies indicate alarmingly high rates of silicosis in long-term miners of about twenty five percent.

Silicosis sufferers also have a greatly increased risk of contracting tuberculosis, which is the leading cause of death in South Africa and endemic in regions such as Eastern Cape.

The situation has been likened to a "river of disease flowing out of South African gold mines” by Professor Tony Davies one of the country’s most prominent health experts. Yet, access to health care is lacking in the areas such as the Eastern Cape and Lesotho from where gold miners predominantly came.

This small group of thirty one ex-miners represents a microcosm of the broader predicament faced by the thousands of black mineworkers on whose backs the South African gold industry built its wealth.

It is only because of the medical examinations in the legal case that the rate of death and the serious illness and incapacitation suffered by these men has been brought to the fore. It is reasonable to assume that the serious ill health that has been identified this week among the group of twenty seven is replicated thousands of times over across the Eastern Cape and Lesotho.

Ordinarily, the scandalous failure of the industry over the past decade to address the plight of ex-miners remains conveniently hidden.

The progressive aging of the population of ex-miners creates a financial incentive on the part of the industry to delay litigation and payment of compensation. Ten percent of the AngloGold lead claimant group have already died. Our experience from the President Steyn litigation against Anglo American South Africa suggests that unfortunately this rate will rapidly grow. Approximately one third of the President Steyn claimant group of twenty three died during the ten year period of the litigation.

Delays in compensating the ex-miners whose labour led to the multi-billion Rand profits of the industry serve not only to deny essential funds to the miners, but also their widows and families. While the claims of the 31 lead group will be resolved in a hearing commencing April 2016 in Johannesburg, many other miners will still be waiting.

The public relations pronouncements of companies such as AngloGold and Anglo American need to be viewed in the context of their treatment of their ex-miners and their families.

That treatment is not ‘offset’ by laudable contributions for example to areas of research that are not their responsibility. The wife of the 74-year-old ex-miner who has been in hospital for the past week, was distraught at the knowledge that her husband was in hospital alone.

We arranged her flight from Mthata to be by his side. AngloGold rejected a request to pay for her accommodation to stay near her husband. So much for dignity and respect, and putting people first.