MARCH 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 3
Multinational Asbestos Miners Have Left a Trail of Deadly Fiber and Dying Workers in South Africa
Under apartheid, the cost of killing black workers is lowby Laurie Flyn
The last of Europe's asbestos multinationals with direct interests in mining South Africa's deadly blue asbestos fiber disposed of its mines to a South African concern in late December. The company which sold out was KCB Kuruman (Cape Blue Mines), part of Eternit, a Swiss/Belgian multinational building products company. The buyer was Griqualand Exploration and Finance Company (GEFCO), a South African company which had operated in Britain for many years and had, according to a top British judge, an atrocious safety record.
While the multinationals have pulled out with considerable financial compensation, they leave behind a host of sick and injured workers and mountains of, blue asbestos waste which will continue to pollute the environment for many years to come. And GEFCO, part of the Afrikaaner mining venture General Mining, will continued to extract and export asbestos.
Workers exposed to asbestos, by breathing in the dust particles, can contract lung diseases and cancer.
South Africa's seam of blue asbestos runs for three hundred miles throughout the Northern Cape Province, from Prieska in the south, through Kuruman, the little town established by the first Christian missionaries south of the Sahara where David Livingstone met and married his wife, to Bute, Heuningvlei and' Pomfret in the north.
At Heuningvlei - literally "the hollow of the bees where water gathers" - the asbestos mine and mill have been closed for three years. In the concrete teepees built by the former British owners, Turner and Newall, to house contract workers, schoolchildren now live during the week. The windows are stuffed with old asbestos sacks. Next to the English language warning signs on the sacks are little clusters of the fiber. Nearby is the tailings dump from the milled asbestos fiber. The dump is open to the elements and large quantities of fiber blow about. Inside, the mill itself is still rotten with the fiber. Five minutes' walk away from this deadly source of pollution, local people come to the hollow to pan their salt and to obtain water.
Bute, like Heuningvlei, was formerly owned by the British asbestos company, Turner and Newall, and then sold to GEFCO. There, the miners complain of blue asbestos dust in their food. Besides the opencast blue asbestos mine at Bute, GEFCO is operating a milling and packing plant without the slightest semblance of protection for employees. there are no masks or extraction systems, just a crude clutter of machinery. The situation is even worse than conditions identified in the company's British plant 10 years ago. According to a prominent British lawyer this was a "slum factory" which "shortened the workers' lives." Speaking in Britain's equivalent to the Supreme Court, Lord Salmon described conditions in GEFCO's British plant as "lethal." Such a description of conditions in the Bute plant would be charitable.
At the Koegas asbestos mine near Prieska, production ceased just before the British company Cape Asbestos disposed of its South African mines in 1979. Koegas today is a ghost town. But while Cape has pulled out, its imprint will stay on the area for many years to come. A mountain of asbestos waste sits right on the edge of the Orange River. When the wind blows, waste particles mix in the air. And when it rains, quantities of the asbestos fiber drain off into the waters below. Down stream many people take their drinking water from the Orange River.
On the other side of the dump is a fence with a fading sign, which reads simply: "Danger. Asbestos Contaminated Area."
Nearby, at Prieska, a small town dominated for years by Cape's asbestos mill, the local doctor states that he has seen 900 cases of mesothelioma cancer - cancer of the lung or lung lining - in his 40 years in the town. Asbestos, particularly blue asbestos, is the only known cause of this rare cancer.
In the local hospital at Prieska lies 35-year-old Booi Visagi. He started work for Cape Asbestos at Koegas when he was 14 years old. Now he is dying from mesothelioma. He has received not a penny from the company by way of compensation.
In South Africa, where the economy - and society at large - is based on racial discrimination, the cost of killing black contract workers is hardly considerable. A government-industry fund exists to "compensate" workers, but compensation is based on estimates of the danger level at the mine where the workers were employed. The compensation, when it comes, can be less than $5.00 a week.
South Africa's contract mining system brings blacks to work in the mines for poor wages and short periods of time. After the contract expires, they return to the "homelands," probably never to be seen or heard of again by their former employers. And if, years later, they develop asbestos-related diseases and grow sick and die, they probably do not even connect their plight with a brief period in an asbestos mine.
Some idea of the scale of suffering the multinationals leave behind can be gleaned from a study done at the Batlaros Mission Hospital near Kuruman, since 1975. A doctor, a nurse and a driver have combed a 60-mile area around Kuruman, and have traced approximately 1,000 of the 17,000 black African workers who had contracts with two mining companies between 1956 and 1962. 270, more than one in four, had asbestosis. Dust to Dust, a recent Granada Television documentary in Britain, exposed the plight of the people left behind. Among the victims interviewed were James and Emily Ebang. The Ebangs have four small children. James Ebang has known for some time that he has asbestosis. Recently he learned he also has mesothelioma from which he will shortly die. This is what they told British television.
Asked how much compensation they got from the government/ asbestos industry fund, the Ebangs explained it was less than four dollars a week. What could the Ebangs buy with this compensation money?
James Ebang became sick because of conditions at KCB, part of the Swiss-Belgian multinational building products company Eternit. Asked if anyone from KCB/Eternit had ever come to see or help the family, the Ebangs replied:
Laurie Flynn is a journalist with Granada television in Britain which recently broadcast a documentary on the asbestos mines of South Africa.