For over 100 years South Africa was the third largest exporter of asbestos and hundreds of thousands of people have died as a direct result of exposure to asbestos originating from South Africa’s mines.
Asbestos occurs naturally in vast swathes of Northern Cape Province stretching from the Kuruman Hills to Prieska. Mining started on a small scale in the mid-19th century.
The giant Cape Plc became established in the early 20th century and dominated the global asbestos industry. Cape Plc was well aware of the dangers of asbestos due to its international operation and was all too familiar with tighter regulation elsewhere, including in Britain, and the reasons for this.
However the workforce in South Africa was not organised and there was high illiteracy, discrimination and exploitation. Unlike other mining regions in Canada, America and Australia, in South Africa entire families often worked together in the mines, living in the vicinity. Women would work in the packing and production industry, often with their children close by. The burden of disease hit entire communities and the age of first exposure was often very young.
Whilst mine workers’ health surveillance became a legal requirement in the 1920s, initially this was only for the miners themselves and not those affected environmentally or in associated industries. The company doctors who carried out the surveillance were employed by the mine owners – because of the this and the long latency of asbestos diseases, the true incidence and inequality of the burden of disease was not apparent until many years later and much of the legacy remains undocumented.
The trades union movement in South Africa was relatively late to organise partly because of disenfranchisement and structural exploitation of the work force. In 1993 the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act of 1973 was revised and work began to eliminate inequality as part of the new post-apartheid government reorganisation of the state.
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