The silent scourge? Silicosis, respiratory disease and gold-mining in South Africa
At the beginning of August 2002, in a blaze of publicity and to much media approval, South Africa’s largest mining conglomerate, the Anglo American Corporation, which has long prided itself on being the progressive face of mining capital in the subcontinent, announced its intention to extend anti-retroviral treatments to all its employees infected by HIV. There were immediate pressures on Anglo-American for
some such gesture. In the previous April, Anglo-Gold had estimated that 29 per cent of its workforce was HIV positive, while a more limited pilot scheme of supplying anti-retrovirals to permanent, largely white, employees exposed the corporation to accusations from the National Union of Mineworkers of racial bias, and threats of strike action.1 The Company had discovered that, despite the cost, it was cheaper to
support its workers on anti-retrovirals than to face the loss of skilled manpower to HIV/AIDS – or to strike action. Anglo American’s response, announced the Financial Times, was pointing the way for other South African companies in the face of the devastating pandemic in the sub-continent.
This moment has its historic resonances.2 The mining industry has long been wont to publicise its benevolent concern for the lives and limbs of its workers, and its sophisticated health care system. A more cynical and historically-minded observer might note rather less disinterested motives than the press release suggested. It is perhaps no co-incidence that the news releases came in the wake of the legal victory
in the British House of Lords won by asbestosis and mesothelioma sufferers in South Africa against Cape plc – the asbestos mining giant in South Africa, itself largely owned and controlled by Gencor a major gold-mining company and its associates3- a
1 Mail and Guardian Online Archive, 12 October 2001, and April 2002 `Aids Barometer’. See also Johannesburg Business Report 6 Nov 2002, `Anglo Americanfaces heavy AIDS bill’.
2 There was also some irony in the Corporation’s grand-standing in relation to the government’s tardiness in providing anti-retrovirals for HIV/AIDS sufferers. In 1932, the Committee on Tuberculosis (formed jointly by the state and the Chamber of Mines) pointed to the contrast between `the generous provision of hospitals and efficient whole-time medical staffs by the mining industry for its Native workers on the Rand with the almost complete absence of a public medical service of any kind for the natives in… throughout South Africa ‘and pointed to `the fact that industrial concerns often set an example to governments in the care of their dependents’. Then, as now, the government’s neglect was unquestionable, the industry’s benevolence questionable. (SAIMR, Tuberculosis in the South African Native with special reference to the Disease amongst the Mine Labourers on the Witwatersrand, no. xxx, vol.V, [Published by SAIMR, Jhbg, 1932], p.289.)
3 Richard Spoor, `Workman’s Compensation and the Prevalence of Occupational Injuries and Disease in South Africa’, unpublished paper, April 2002, p.8. Both Gencor and Gefco were part of the Anglo American stable until the 1960s when they were disposed of to Federale Mynbou.
1 victory of historic consequence.4 The implications could not have been lost on Anglo-American and other members of the Chamber of Mines. As one of the lawyers representing the community and workers in Cape plc, Richard Spoor, remarked, the Cape decision has changed the way we look at occupational disease in this country. The case against the [mining] industry is a strong one and a wave of litigation against
the industry should be anticipated. It is no longer a matter that we will be prepared to tolerate. It is clear to us that someone is responsible and that someone will be made to pay. …. The industry should … be aware that its stock of credibility is about used up.5 If accidental, the timing of Anglo-American’s announcement was fortuitous. It came as the mining industry faced mounting demands for greater black participation in its activities with the publication of a controversial socio-economic Charter 6 and as the true health costs of its activities since the mineral discoveries in the last third of the nineteenth century were being revealed more generally. As Spoor himself noted, `… asbestosis is only a small part of a much bigger problem’, so that the Cape decision is also likely to `to be followed by an epidemic of industrial litigation, as former miners and their advocates turn to the courts for compensation.7