Complex litigation: Past and present mine workers claim they were exposed to conditions that resulted in them contracting tuberculosis and silicosis. In 2016, the high court gave them the go-ahead for a class-action lawsuit. Picture: ALON SKUY
Complex litigation: Past and present mine workers claim they were exposed to conditions that resulted in them contracting tuberculosis and silicosis. In 2016, the high court gave them the go-ahead for a class-action lawsuit. Picture: ALON SKUY

The Johannesburg high court on Thursday provisionally approved the R5bn settlement reached between mining companies and workers suffering from silicosis and other occupational lung diseases.

However, before the agreement can be made an order of court, interested parties have to be given an opportunity to object.

The historic settlement was reached in May 2018 after three years of extensive negotiations between the workers and the companies — African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye-Stillwater.

Only once the court issues an order to approve the settlement can a trust be established to pay eligible beneficiaries.

But in terms of the processes outlined on Thursday, the court will do so only once interested parties are given an opportunity to object to, or opt out of, the settlement agreement.

Richard Spoor, who represents the workers, said the process, while required in a class-action like this, means the matter is likely to be drawn out for another six months before workers will see any compensation.

In terms of Thursday’s court order, interested parties must be invited to come forward to argue against the settlement being made an order of court. This will be done through a media campaign in January, Spoor said.

“When the order is made final, it is binding on the people of the class,” said Spoor. “It gives rights and takes away rights,” he said noting this agreement could potentially take away the right of anyone in that class to later sue any of the companies.

If such parties do come forward, there will be a hearing (already set down for April 29 to May 31 2019) to consider the arguments. If no one objects to the settlement agreement, the order will be made final in April.

“Once the judge makes the order final, it gets advertised again, this time for people who don’t wish to participate to opt out”, Spoor said. “If you don’t opt out, you will be bound by the settlement.”

Spoor said while it was good to be thorough, the drawn-out process was frustrating for former and sick mine workers. “It’s taking a lot longer than we imagined. And I’m afraid for the victims there is still a considerable delay.”

steynl@businesslive.co.za