S. Africa gold miners, workers reach settlement in historic silicosis case

South African gold producers signed Thursday a class action settlement with law firms representing thousands of miners who contracted the fatal lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis while working for them.

The 5 billion rand-settlement (about $400 million at today’s exchange rate), reached following three years of negotiations, puts an end to the country’s largest and most expensive class action ever against mining companies. The suit, first filed in 2012 was allowed to proceed in 2016, in a historic decision of South Africa’s High Court.

The document was signed by Richard Spoor Inc, Abrahams Kiewitz Inc and the Legal Resources Centre, representing the affected workers, and the Occupational Lung Disease Working Group, which acted on behalf of African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold and Sibanye-Stillwater.

The out-of-court settlement puts an end to the country’s largest and most expensive class action ever against mining companies.

The parties said they believed an out-of-court settlement was far preferable for everyone involved than an inevitably lengthy and expensive litigation process. They noted this option would allow claimants to receive compensation and relief for their conditions more quickly.

The agreement, the first class action settlement of its kind in South Africa, needs approval by the Johannesburg High Court before it can be implemented, the parties said.

It ensures compensation for all eligible workers suffering from silicosis or tuberculosis who worked at the named companies’ operations at any point since March 1965 and doesn't set a limit in the number of potential claimants.

Most claimants are black miners from South Africa and neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, whom critics say were not provided with adequate protection during and even after the Apartheid ended in 1994.

The claims go back decades, which explains why Anglo American, which no longer has any interests in gold mining, and ARM, which no longer operates gold mines in South Africa, were named in the suit.

Research indicates the miners caught silicosis, which has no known cure, from inhaling silica dust while drilling rock. The dust lodges in the lungs and causes permanent scars.

Symptoms include persistent coughing and shortness of breath, and the disease regularly leads to tuberculosis and death.