Past and present mine workers claim they were exposed to conditions that resulted in them contracting tuberculosis and silicosis. Picture: ALON SKUY
Past and present mine workers claim they were exposed to conditions that resulted in them contracting tuberculosis and silicosis. Picture: ALON SKUY

SA’s largest and most expensive class action to date, brought by mine workers against seven gold mining companies, will finally conclude on Thursday with the signing of a R5bn mediated settlement.

Seven gold-mining companies have made provisions in the past year for about R5bn that will go towards establishing a trust to pay miners afflicted with silicosis after working underground and breathing silica-laden dust.

Participants confirmed that the parties could sign an agreement on Thursday, provided there were no last-minute developments.

The claimants’ attorneys in the silicosis and tuberculosis class-action litigation and the mining companies’ occupational lung disease working group will host a briefing in Johannesburg to sign the agreement.

The agreement will have to be ratified by a court before it can be implemented.

Richard Spoor, the lawyer representing more than 20 ill miners in the litigation, said on Wednesday: “We are sitting on the brink of reaching an agreement in this matter and we hope to have it confirmed in writing and signed on Thursday.”

Spoor said he had come under pressure from former gold-mine employees to reach a settlement quickly instead of dragging the matter through the courts for years.

“We might have done better if we continued litigating for longer, but weighing heavily on us was the desire to reach a conclusion and get money distributed to people,” he said.

It was impossible to put a figure to the number of former miners or their beneficiaries who stood to benefit from the agreement, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 people. Ailing former mine workers were dying at a rate of about 4% a year based on the records of 30,000 people held in the databases of the litigants’ attorneys, he said. If the primary claimant had died, then his widow and dependants stood to benefit.

The exact details of the agreement are unknown, but core to the successful implementation would be tracking and verifying those afflicted by the disease. Many come from rural areas in SA and neighbouring countries and many are illiterate.

Mining companies are not likely to pay the full R5bn into the trust, but rather a portion of the amount to fund the trust’s work; then they will make payments as claimants come into the system over the next 12 years or more.

The trust would make cash calls on companies, Graham Briggs, Harmony Gold’s former CEO and head of the occupational lung diseases working group, said in February.

In the silicosis settlement, the mining companies would pay a lump sum into a trust that would locate, verify and assess former miners with silicosis and occupational tuberculosis. Once confirmed, the trust would make a payment to former miners or to the families of miners who had died and who had had a confirmed occupational lung disease, Briggs said.

In the 12 months to end-October 2017, there were 7,756 compensation payments made to former miners with occupational lung diseases, worth R226m, compared with 1,628 compensation payments were worth R79m in the same period in 2015.

The funds were paid from R3.5bn in unclaimed funds held in the Department of Health’s Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases.

Six doctors and senior managers from gold mines were seconded to the fund, stepping up the tracking and tracing of former miners in SA and neighbouring countries, leading to the increase in claims.