The Johannesburg High Court recently authorized South Africa's largest ever class action lawsuit allowing potentially as many as half a million former gold miners with silicosis to seek compensation from the entire South African gold mining industry. Due to amicus interventions from two South African NGOs the case has also highlighted the gender dimensions of silicosis and drawn attention to claims rural women have on the mining industry for compensation.
South Africa's gold mining industry has generated enormous profits at great social cost, especially, of course, for Black Africans. Starting in the 1880s when gold was first discovered, the mining houses colluded with colonial governments to put in place a range of taxes and legislation. These forced black men to leave their small holdings to work in the mines, in order to afford the newly imposed colonial tax inventions. Black women and girls were required by law to remain in rural areas where they carried out the work of raising workers and caring for them when they returned home, often desperately ill.
Once on the mines, black men were forced to work dangerous jobs with little pay and were exposed to malnutrition, tuberculosis, and dangerous levels of silica dust. Countless workers developed silicosis, which scars the lungs, makes breathing difficult and painful, drastically increases vulnerability to pulmonary tuberculosis and can ultimately cause asphyxiation.