The Multinational Monitor


S O U T H   A F R I C A

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 low

by 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.

James Ebang: "My lungs seem as if they close up if I walk too fast. I cannot carry or pick up anything. I suffer from shortness of breath. I also have pains in my joints so that I feel weak."

Emily Ebang: "This man wasn't like this before. He is very weak now compared to the time we got married. He was a strong man. He is finished. He wasn't like this. He was a big strong healthy man, beautiful and attractive."

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: "Only mealie meal. A sack of mealie meal and a little coffee and then it's finished. After that I beg other people for help."

Emily Ebang: "We cannot live like this. We go hungry all the time and we have no clothes to wear. I have four children here and they don't go to school because I have no money to pay school fees. The children suffer: they have no soap for washing, no blankets; I keep on mending their clothes like an old woman. When he worked, we got lots more. Now we have nothing. I cannot go to work because he gets ill a lot. He gets feverish at night. Then I've got to help him sit up because he nearly chokes. He cannot stay by himself. This is my loss."

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:

Emily Ebang: "They have never put their feet here. If they had any conscience or feelings then they would have come. They have abandoned him."

James Ebang: "I feel heartsore. They do not help me in any way."

Emily Ebang: I feel sad and bitter. If he dies, I won't be able to bury him properly because I do not have money. I will have to bury him in a sack.

Laurie Flynn is a journalist with Granada television in Britain which recently broadcast a documentary on the asbestos mines of South Africa.

Lonrho keeps a deadly mine

There is one major British company still mining and milling deadly blue asbestos fiber in South Africa. The company is the diverse multinational Lonrho, which owns and operates the Wandrag asbestos mine and mill near Kuruman. The mine and mill complex is run-down, with waste blue asbestos fiber everywhere around it. Polluted water used in the mining process drains off into a nearby lake which is as blue as the fabled blue lagoon, the water is so heavy with the deadly fiber. It finds its way to the edge, dries on the shore and is borne into the atmosphere by the wind.

The interior walls of the mill itself are encrusted with the deadly fiber, evidence of a very high concentration of airborne fiber all breathed in by the men who work and live on the premises or live in the nearby compound. Film of the conditions at Lonrho's plant was shown to Ted Rushworth, until his recent retirement a senior British Factory Inspector. He commented as follows: "There's no precautions whatsoever. It really is appalling. I mean there's nothing like this in Britain. The dust concentrations in the air inside that plant will be enormous. And those chaps - you can see the blue dust on the blue overalls. On the helmets. They're just thick in it. Clothing like that, taken home, overalls shaken out at home, lead to mesotheliomas among housewives. It's man's inhumanity to man, isn't it?"

The Wandrag mine and mill is in fact an instance of that most cynical of multinational business practices - the export of hazards to countries where workers have little union, protection and safety regulations are nonexistent. Asked what would happen if Lonrho tried to operate such a plant in Britain, Rushworth said the Factory Inspectorate would shut the place down immediately and set up a task force to decontaminate the whole surrounding area.

Following up the Granada TV documentary, a correspondent for the British Sunday newspaper The Observer discovered that the wages Lonrho paid to its asbestos miners, 9 pounds sterling (about $18) a week in 1980, were the lowest of any British company in South Africa recorded by the U.K. government Department of Trade. The story was not printed by The Observer. The paper belongs to a British multinational company called Lonrho.

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