South Africa: The Asbestos Legacy 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



On the day of his inauguration as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela pledged to "liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination." The excesses and negligence of the South African asbestos industry during the years of Apartheid, contributed significantly to the levels of disability, premature death and financial hardship among asbestos workers, their families and local residents. During that period, South African and foreign companies such as Cape plc, T&N Ltd, Griqualand Exploration and Finance (GEFCO) and Everite-Eternit worked assiduously to extract the maximum profit from a natural resource found in the Northern Cape, the Northern Province and Mpumalanga. In 1977, asbestos production peaked at 380,000 tons making South Africa the third biggest supplier in the world. GEFCO achieved record output and financial returns during the decade commencing in 1966; in 1970, company profits rose by thirty-two per cent. According to a government publication, the Republic of South Africa (RSA) is currently faced with an "epidemic of asbestos diseases due to past practices." Unfortunately, past practices are not the only problem. Twenty thousand tons of chrysotile are still used in the country annually; seven companies employ three thousand workers to manufacture asbestos-containing building materials and pipes. Levels of environmental pollution in some areas are colossal; huge asbestos dumps, including eighty-two in the Northern Cape alone, are scattered throughout the countryside. To date, the government has spent R44 million ($7.5 million) on rehabilitation of derelict and "ownerless mines." Estimates that R52 million are needed to complete the task seem optimistic. In November, 1998 a group of two hundred and fifty scientists, doctors, government officials, health and safety specialists, trade unionists, asbestos industry representatives and local people met for three days under the auspices of the National Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs and Tourism in Johannesburg "to address the urgent health and welfare problems relating to asbestos-induced diseases in South Africa." Delegates included Ministers from the RSA and Zimbabwe, experts from the USA and Australia and observers from regional asbestos workshops; translations into the eleven languages of the RSA were available. The significance that official sources attached to community involvement was reflected by the predominance of delegates from "affected" areas and groups.

In her message of welcome to the National Asbestos Summit, Gwen Mahlangu MP, Chairperson of the Committee on Environment and Tourism, called for: "indigenous solutions informed by the international community... (and) consensus amongst all stakeholders." Fred Gona, speaking on behalf of the labor caucus, condemned multinationals which "creamed all the profits off from the production of Asbestos" and then disposed of their South African liabilities. Provincial representatives and asbestos sufferers identified a wide range of problems including: the lack of information available on asbestos, asbestos-containing products and asbestos-related diseases, the low levels of and difficulties in obtaining occupational compensation, the ineligibility of casual workers and victims of environmental exposure to compensation, inadequate occupational health-care services, the lack of government co-ordination and the need for more local involvement with rehabilitation and aforestation programs. Calls to ban chrysotile and implement "the polluter pays principle" were reported in the submission from the Northern Province (NP) workshop. Dr. Marianne Felix told the NP meeting that a "study done so far at Mafefe on the adults shows that more than 50% of the adults are infected with asbestos." Proposals for a unilateral ban, which were made by the Kwazulu-Natal delegation and the rapporteur from the West Cape workshop, were unrealistic according to an industry spokesman who pointed out that "a number of countries have implemented a ban but since retreated because of litigation... the saving of life could not justify the unemployment and loss of resources that would result." The Zimbabwe delegation fought hard in plenary and workshop sessions to counteract calls for a ban by 2001. South Africa is a substantial importer of chrysotile, one of Zimbabwe’s major exports. The Klinger Group, processors of raw chrysotile for over one hundred years, also remains firmly committed to the policy of "safe sustainable use" according to Don Munro, a senior executive. Munro admitted, however, that non-asbestos technology is now being investigated as "there is community hostility to asbestos and we do not push products that have a poor press." The Industry View, a booklet distributed at the Summit, contained some controversial assertions: "there is indeed a safe level of exposure to asbestos... even if asbestos-cement is broken or cracked, respirable asbestos fibres remain encapsulated in the cement matrix (and) ... the seven major manufacturers using asbestos as a raw material should be allowed to continue their enterprises."

Barry Castleman, an Environmental Consultant from the USA, supported proposals for a South African ban, pointing out that in three years time "the country’s remaining asbestos mine at Msauli will be exhausted... production of fibre-cement pipe... can become asbestos-free and the country’s brake manufacturing plants would already have been converted." Castleman criticized the industry’s position commenting that "controlled use of asbestos in third world countries is like sustainable development: everyone talks about it but no one is doing it." Recommendations by the Summit’s four commissions include action by the Government to "sue foreign companies responsible for - human suffering, environmental degradation, repayment of government billions spent on rehabilitation, remediation and health service provision." While an immediate ban on amosite, crocidolite and tremolite was endorsed, accommodation was reached on chrysotile with agreement to implement a prohibition "within a reasonable period."

On December 14, 1998, BBC2’s late evening news program featured a report on the commercial activities of the British company Cape plc in South Africa. According to the Memorandum on the Asbestos Industry in the Cape Province of 1915: "The history of the asbestos industry in the Cape has been, until quite recently, practically that of the Cape Asbestos Company, and that corporation still controls the great bulk of the production." During the program, the existence of a double standard was demonstrated by the disclosure that although "tens of millions of pounds" has been paid out in Britain, no compensation for asbestos-related diseases or environmental contamination has been awarded in South Africa. Survivors from Cape’s facilities in Koegas and Prieska spoke of conditions in which entire families had been exposed to astonishing levels of contamination. Peter Mokaba, MP and Deputy Minister for Environmental Affairs, was adamant that the South African government would support legal action being taken in Britain by South African sufferers stating that Cape was "responsible for the consequences of their operations wherever they operated... wherever they enjoyed their profits."

May 2, 2000



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