South Africa gold miners to sue over lung disease

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Thousands of former South African miners say they are suffering from silicosis

Former gold miners in South Africa can go ahead with a class action against mining companies over health damage allegedly caused by their work, a court in Johannesburg has ruled.

The high court decision paves the way for what would become the largest class action in South African history.

The ex-miners say they contracted silicosis, an incurable lung disease, after years of working in the mines.

The court said that a class action was "the only realistic option".

Judge Phineas Mojapelo's decision could lead to a court case lasting up to 10 years, the BBC's Nomsa Maseko reports from Johannesburg.

But the former miners are still hopeful that the case could help improve their lives as well as those of their families, our reporter says.

Among the defendants in the case are Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields and Harmony Gold.

The companies are now studying the judgement and added, in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency: "It should be noted that the finding does not represent a view on the merits of the cases brought by claimants."

Analysis: Pumza Fihlani, BBC Africa, Johannesburg

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Miners have long campaigned for compensation for the health damage allegedly caused by their work

The lawyers representing the miners believe this court ruling marks the first step towards justice.

Most of the miners who allegedly contracted silicosis while working underground have been unable to work for many years, dependent on government grants for a living.

The claims, going back decades, also involve former miners from neighbouring countries such as Lesotho.

One of the companies in this case, Anglo American, reached a $30m (£21m) suit with 400 miners in a separate silicosis case.

It is not clear if this class action will be settled out of court, but for the miners who say they have waited for too long, a speedy resolution would be a form of justice.

Silicosis, caused by inhaling the silica dust in gold-bearing rocks, can lead to breathing difficulties, regular coughing and chest pains, and it can also lead to tuberculosis.

Gold mining has played a central role in South Africa's history, with Johannesburg, its largest city, being built on the gold reefs.

But in recent years, its contribution to the economy has declined with the metal contributing 1.7% to GDP in 2013, according to Statistics South Africa,

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