The South Gauteng High Court recently certified two class action suits of silicosis and pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) against 32 mining companies. The Court's judgment has set the stage for protracted legal proceedings in the largest class action suit in South Africa's history.

The first class action suit concerns silicosis, an occupational lung disease that may be contracted by underground gold miners who inhale crystalline silica dust. According to the judgment, the disease is irreversible and painful, with the onset of symptoms following approximately 15 years after exposure. Many of the miners lived far away from the mine at the time they were diagnosed with silicosis. The Court heard that medical resources in these areas were poor or non-existent and in most cases, the miners' condition worsened until they eventually succumbed to the disease.

The second class action suit concerns TB. It was accepted by the Court that silica dust does not cause TB, however there is an association between the exposure to silica dust and TB.

The miners testified that the mining companies:

  • owed a common law duty of care to their employees and ought to have taken reasonable measures to provide a safe and healthy work environment that was not injurious to health; and
  • owed a statutory duty to their employees to comply with the Mines and Works Act 12 of 1911 and the Mine Health and Safety Act 29 of 1996.

The Judge held that despite being employed by different mines, the miners' testimony showed remarkable consistency and their evidence revealed how mining companies "stripped them of their dignity and concomitantly compromised their health and safety with such intensity and ferocity that they were effectively dehumanised".

In light of the evidence presented, the Court certified the class action suits. It concluded that many of the miners had similar claims with sufficient common issues to justify the class action.

This landmark judgment effectively permits miners who work or have worked on one or more of the mines, after 12 March 1965 and contracted silicosis and /or TB as a result of their employment, to approach the High Court and sue the mining companies for damages. The Court also ruled that relatives of the miners who have already died can still join the class suit to claim compensation. The Court's decision to allow dependants of deceased miners to institute claims for damages sets a new precedent in South Africa.

The mining companies involved intend to apply for leave to appeal the judgment.

Case citation: Bongani Nkala and 68 others vs Harmony Gold Mining Company Limited and 31 others (2016)