South Africa's mining industry is under heavy scrutiny after 44 people died during protests at a platinum mine near Johannesburg. Now, the industry is facing challenges on another front: Lawyers have filed a class-action lawsuit against three of the country's biggest gold mining companies.
They're suing on behalf of miners who worked during the apartheid era and now have lung disease.
A settlement in the case — and another like it — could reach into the billions of dollars.
In rural Eastern Cape province, thatch-roof huts line the dirt roads that wind through rolling green hills. Children in uniforms play outside an elementary school.
Inside, dozens of men are packed into a small classroom. Ziyanda Manjati, a paralegal, flips through a stack of papers and asks the men questions about their health.
Manjati is part of a legal team that is scouring the South African countryside, trying to find the tens of thousands of men who poured into the country's gold mines during apartheid.
Siponono Phahlane, 59, says he began mining in 1973. He says the conditions at his mine near Ellis Rand, about 120 miles southwest of Johannesburg, were terrible.
"We lived in a hostel 100 yards from the entrance. We wore the same uniform and the same boots for six months," Phahlane recalls.
He says his white bosses would often send black workers into the mines in extremely unsafe conditions.
"They would blast and blast and then just send us in, without waiting 15 minutes," he says. "There was dust everywhere. We weren't even given masks."
After two decades of this kind of work, Phahlane got sick. He had trouble breathing. Eventually, he was diagnosed with silicosis, which causes shortness of breath and can lead to scarring in the lungs and a higher risk of tuberculosis.
Today, he can't walk more than a few yards without stopping. And he coughs up blood.
"It feels like I have stones in my lungs. And the doctors say it won't get better," Phahlane says.
South Africa's vast riches were built on the backs of black workers like Phahlane — men who toiled underground for years, making little money. Many fell ill or died. But under South African law, they were never allowed to sue their employers, even after apartheid ended in 1994.
Then, last year, the country's highest court made a monumental ruling: It said sick miners could sue in civil courts.
"There is no precedent," says Richard Spoor, the attorney who brought that historic case to court. "We are really working where no one has gone before."
Now, Spoor is filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 13,000 sick miners. A similar suit, including about 3,000 miners, was filed in August. Spoor says the scale of damage done to miners is hard to comprehend.
"We literally are talking about tens of thousands of people who have become sick or who have died as a result of this disaster," he says, calling it "the biggest and longest-running industrial disaster in human history."
Experts say the cases will probably end in a settlement. Billions of dollars could be at stake. But figuring out who should pay is difficult. That's because companies have restructured significantly since the end of apartheid.
Spoor says white-owned businesses — the ones that exploited black workers during apartheid — have sold or given away many assets to black-owned businesses as part of South Africa's black economic empowerment scheme.
But there's a bitter irony: Black South African-owned companies may now literally have to pay for the crimes of apartheid. Companies implicated in the lawsuit declined to comment.
Back at the school, Siponono Phahlane, who suffers from silicosis, says he had no idea how much money mining companies were making during apartheid.
"I didn't know it at the time because it was hidden. But now I can see that these companies were making huge sums of money," he says.
He and his family live in extreme poverty. He's not hoping to get rich from the lawsuit, Phahlane says; he just wants enough money to pay his medical bills and survive. But more than anything, he just wants his voice to be heard.
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