Asbestos Profile: South Africa 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

 

 

The mining of asbestos, which began in South Africa in 1895, continued for more than 100 years; the commercial exploitation of chrysotile, crocidolite and amosite played a key role in the industrial development of the North Eastern Transvaal and the Northern Cape, two of the nation's poorest regions. 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) [USGS Circular]. 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. The rest was used in the building of the country's infrastructure; it went into schools, libraries, hospitals, public buildings, homes and transport.

The large asbestos mines were owned and operated by subsidiaries of major European corporations including Turner & Newall Ltd., the Cape Asbestos Company Ltd. and Griqualand Exploration and Finance Company Ltd. These companies had little regard for their workers, customers or members of the public and applied lower health and safety standards in South Africa than they did at home. Conditions at the asbestos mines were universally bad and government negligence combined with economic and political discrimination imposed by apartheid [South Africa: The Asbestos Legacy] simultaneously yielded fat profits for European shareholders and great suffering for those people who were occupationally and environmentally exposed to the hazardous fibers [Asbestos Legacy Photoessay (slide 1)]. Pollution created by mining, processing and dumping of asbestos fiber led to widespread contamination of rural areas. As a result, the incidence of asbestos-related disease is high amongst residents from asbestos communities. Also badly affected are workers from the following industrial sectors: construction, power stations, railway workshops, ship-building and repairing; boilermakers, steamfitters, electricians, textile workers, roofers, stevedores, waste disposal workers and motor vehicle mechanics are also in high-risk categories [Asbestos Mining in Southern Africa]. Efforts continue by grassroots groups to deal with widespread environmental contamination and raise awareness of the hazards. [Creating Awareness in South Africa].

The first legal case brought on behalf of South African workers against the European mining companies began in 1997 [Cape Plc: South African Mineworkers' Quest for Justice] when claims were lodged in the English High Court against Cape PLC [House of Lords' Victory for Human Rights]. That the case eventually succeeded was testament to the plaintiffs' determination and their lawyers unswerving commitment. As a result of this pioneering case, litigation against other multinationals was commenced. As part of the settlement of claims against Gencor, Gefco, African Chrysotile Asbestos, Msauli and Hanova Mining, The Asbestos Relief Trust was set up [The Asbestos Relief Trust]. After nearly 10 years of discussion, research and consultation, regulations to ban asbestos came into force in South Africa on March 28, 2008 [South Africa Bans Asbestos!].

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Updated August 2013

 

 

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