South Africas Asbestos Crisis
Throughout the 20th century, British multinationals invested in, operated and developed asbestos-producing and processing facilities in Southern Africa. When they walked away from their African asbestos liabilities, they abandoned asbestos-exposed workers and asbestos-contaminated communities to their fate; as a consequence of their actions, tens of thousands of individuals are even now being exposed to hazardous levels of asbestos on a daily basis.1 A communiqué sent last month (February 2015) by the British Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health to South Africas Minister of Labour expressed solidarity for those working to alleviate suffering caused by British asbestos corporations. The letter by Jim Sheridan, Member of Parliament and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health, to Minister Nelisiwe Mildred Oliphant is scathing about the behaviour of British conglomerates which:
had little regard for their workers, customers or the communities surrounding their [asbestos] mine sites. As a result of their actions, entire communities and populations are living with asbestos in their lungs, homes, gardens, schools, playgrounds and roads Research commissioned by the South African and provincial governments substantiates the hazard posed by the ongoing asbestos crisis. There are multiple examples of schoolchildren studying in contaminated classrooms and playing in highly polluted schoolyards. 2
Judging by a list of all South African asbestos mines, the towns of Pietersburg in Limpopo Province and Kuruman in the Northern Cape Province were at the heart of South Africas asbestos mining industry. Each town had 37 mines; between them they accounted for 52% of all South Africas asbestos mines. From the early 20th century, the money to be made from the commercial exploitation of asbestos deposits attracted corporate big-hitters as well as small-time prospectors to Kuruman; amongst the companies to have operated in the vicinity of the town during the 20th century were: (1) the Griqualand Exploration & Finance Company (GEFCO),3 (2) the Cape Asbestos Co. Ltd.,4 (3) Gencor Ltd., (4) Lonhro, (5) the Dominion Blue Asbestos Company, (6) Kuruman Cape Blue Asbestos and (7) the Danielskuil Cape Blue Asbestos; companies 1 to 5 were, at one time or another, British-owned.5
The Asbestos Interest Group (AIG), a Kuruman-based citizens group, has documented asbestos contamination in several schools in the local area including: Gamopedi Primary School (in use), Khiba Middle School (closed in October 2014 by the Department of Labor for the safety of the students, teachers and support staff; temporarily relocated to Gamopedi Primary), Reitemogetse Primary School (in use), Sedibeng Primary School (in use), Magobing Primary School (temporarily relocated to Hotazel combined school and Tsineng high school), Ncweng Primary School (relocated to new school building), Heuningvlei Primary School (temporarily relocated to a temporary building in Heuningvlei), Magojaneng combined School (temporarily relocated to Hotazel combined school & Tsineng High school).
At the beginning of 2015, the dangerous situation in which the pupils and staff of one Kuruman school found themselves was widely publicized.6 As is noted in the paragraph above in autumn 2014 the operations of the Khiba Middle School, formerly attended by 200 pupils, were transferred to an alternative site due to high levels of asbestos contamination.7 Contributing to the toxic situation was the fact that the school was built with asbestos bricks and was sited on land awash with both loose asbestos fibers and asbestos-containing debris. According to a report written last month (February 2015) by Khibas principal A. Mokgwabone:
The department of education promised to have delivered 6 mobile classrooms ready for use by the reopening of schools on 19 January 2015.
When schools reopened for educators on 19 January 2015 there was only one half of Mobile classrooms with broken windows delivered at Gamopedi Primary school. When schools were reopened for learners on 21 January 2015 there were two halves of mobile classrooms not joined together.
The two classes of grade 10 learners were placed in the two halves of mobiles. All Grade 9 (70) were placed in one classroom provided by Gamopedi Primary and Grade 8 learners (98) were placed in another classroom also provided by Gamopedi Primary school.
The Mokgwabone report includes photographs of broken mobile classroom units, missing windows and overcrowded school accommodation; the accompanying text details ongoing challenges including: insufficient toilet facilities, missing mobile classrooms, broken windows, lack of office and storage space.
Last week, the Chairmen of the Asbestos Relief Trust and the Kgalagadi Relief Trust commended the initiative by the British politicians which recognized the important work done by our government and others to confront the scourge of asbestos in South Africa, but reconfirmed that key challenges remained regarding the widespread asbestos contamination of communities, the lack of healthcare provision and financial resources to assist victims. It is clear from the work done by the Asbestos Interest Group that hazardous exposures whether at school, home or in the community constitute an ongoing hazard. The South African and Provinicial Governments engagement with the asbestos challenge is hampered by a lack of resources. Following the principle of the polluter pays, it should have been up to the asbestos companies to decontaminate the environment and provide the support and treatment needed by the injured. They have not done so. Perhaps the expression of solidarity by the British parliamentarians could constitute a new point of engagement for all those concerned.
March 12, 2015
A South African database of samples analysed for the presence of asbestos. 2013.
Precious and the asbestos dump. March 19, 2010.
Outlawed asbestos leaves trail of death, suffering, claims and mining shame. May 16, 2008.
McCulloch, J. Mining Asbestos in South Africa: Labour Capital and the State. 2000
1 From 1950 through the mid-1980s, South Africa was one of the world's leading asbestos producers; at its peak, national production was 380,000 tonnes/yr (1977). South African asbestos was sent to the UK, the U.S., Europe, Australia, Japan, India, Pakistan and Latin America; after 1960, more than 75% of South African asbestos was exported.
2 This communiqué was also circulated to other South African government and civil society stakeholders including: five Federal Ministers, five Parliamentary Committee Heads, Provincial Ministers, environmental campaigning groups, representatives of local government and national agencies.
3 GEFCO mined blue asbestos and owned the following mines and mills in the Kuruman area: the Bretby mine, Coretsi Asbestos Pty Ltd., Merencor Asbestos Mine Pty Ltd., and Riries mines and mill.
4 The Mansfield mine, to the south of Kuruman, belonged to the Cape Asbestos Co. Ltd.
5 The Eternit asbestos group from Switzerland owned Kuruman Cape Blue Asbestos and the Danielskuil Cape Blue Asbestos companies, both of which operated in Kuruman.
Kazan-Allen L. Cape PLC to Compensate Foreign Plaintiffs. March 15, 2003.
6 NCDoE Fails to Deliver. Broken promises: Northern Cape Department of Education fails to deliver on its plan for learners of asbestos-polluted school. Jan 26, 2015.
7 In 2006, a report by the Department of Environmental Affairs documented the extent of the pollution; the findings were ignored by the Northern Cape authorities until the Khiba School Governing Body sought legal representation. The threat of litigation resulted in the Khiba site being closed and the operations of the school being transferred to the Gamopedi Primary School.