Asbestos legacy, South Africa


The legacy of asbestos mining in South Africa is substantial, with many thousands of victims, government and corporate failure to rehabilitate affected areas, and the problem that serious health impacts may only show up 40 years after exposure. Asbestos was mined in a number of districts, and prior to 1945 the work was outsourced to family units, so that men, women and children were affected. Mills were constructed in rural towns, affecting entire populations exposed to airborne fibres. Conflicts have arisen around compensation and rehabiltation. Because of the weak compensation awarded by South African courts, a strategy was undertaken to hear the case in the UK, the home of the asbestos mining companies. The case was fought all the way up to the House of Lords, which ruled that it could be heard in UK courts. The companies responsible for the mining, and hence the compensation, found ways to close down or 'unbundle' prior to the verdict. In the end the compensation was agreed out of court, was far less than expected, and there are difficulties faced by victims in accessing it. Many have died before receiving compensation. The areas where the mining took place until 1996 (when asbestos mining became illegal) are still contaminated. Streets, schools, homes, playgrounds and other features of mining villages were all made from asbestos fibres. The government has failed to reverse the contamination or to rehabilitate the mining areas into healthy communities. Mining companies have disappeared and it is difficult to hold them liable. The legacy of asbestos thus continues.

See more...
Basic Data
NameAsbestos legacy, South Africa
CountrySouth Africa
ProvinceNorthern Cape, Limpopo, NW, Mpumalanga
SitePrieska, Penge, Mfefe, Pholokwane, Pomfret, Barberton
Accuracy of LocationLOW country/state level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Mineral processing
Specific Commodities
Project Details and Actors
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population10000-15000
Start Date1997
Company Names or State EnterprisesCape PLC from United Kingdom
Gencor from United States of America
Relevant government actorsDepartment of Mineral Resources, Department of Environmental Affairs, Department of Health
International and Financial InstitutionsWorld Health Organization (WHO)
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersPublic interest law firms (UK, S Africa), Community organisations (different municipalities affected), Trusts administering the compensation (S Africa), International Alliance on Natural Resources in Africa, World Development Movement (
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)LOW (some local organising)
When did the mobilization beginMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Local ejos
affected parties
Forms of MobilizationBlockades
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Soil contamination, Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment
Project StatusUnknown
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCompensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Development of AlternativesSome of the trustees of the compensation funds are arguing for (a) easier processes for victims to obtain compensation, (b) testing equipment to be available to rural clinics to assist victims to prove their claims, (c) better attitudes and training for rural health workers so as to be able to address claims more effectively, (d) greater involvement of the trade unions in helping the victims to achieve their rights, (e) government to set aside realistic funds for rehabilitation of affected districts and to supplement inadequate compensation.
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.Few resources have been devoted to the environmental rehabilitation of the former asbestos mining areas. Although mining is now illegal, and some compensation has been awarded to victims after litigation in the UK courts, many have died before obtaining the compensation, and administrative problems make it difficult for all victims to access the compensation funds. Small victories were obtained in the banning of asbestos mining, and gaining the right to put the case for compensation to courts in the home country of the mining companies, the UK, since compensation derived historically from South African courts was minimal.
Sources and Materials

Regulations prohibiting the mining of asbestos UK court verdicts on compensation


FERIS, L. A. 1999. 'The asbestos crisis: the need for strict liability for environmental damage.' Acta Juridica. 287-302.

ABRATT, Raymond P, Daniel VOROBIOF and Neil WHITE. 2004. 'Asbestos and mesothelioma in South Africa.' Lung Cancer 45 (Supplement 1): S3-S6.

COOMBS, Anthony. 2002. 'A matter of trust: Anthony Coombes discusses the handling of the Cape plc asbestos case and explains how/why the settlement was reached.'

De Rebus (April), p. 26 ff. DAVIE, Kevin. 2010. 'Precious and the asbestos dump' Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg), March 19-25, pp. 21-23.

FELIX, Marianne. 1991. 'Risking their lives in ignorance: the story of an asbestos-polluted community.' Pp. 33-43 in COCK, Jackyn and Eddie KOCH, (eds), Going green: people, politics and the environment in South Africa. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.

McCULLOCH, Jock. 2002. Asbestos blues: labour, capital, physicians and the state in South Africa. Oxford: James Currey/Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McCULLOCH, Jock. 2003. 'Asbestos mining in South Africa 1893-2002', International Journal of Occupational & Environmental Health 9(3):230-235 (July – Aug).

McCULLOCH, Jock 2005 'Beating the odds: the quest for justice by South African asbestos mining communities', Review of African Political Economy 32 (103):63-77.

TWEEDALE, G and L FLYNN. 2007. 'Piercing the corporate veil: Cape Industries and multinational corporate liability for a toxic hazard'. Enterprise and Society 8:268-296.

WARD, Halina. 2001. 'Securing transnational corporate accountability through national courts: implications and policy options'. Hastings International and Comparative Law Review 24: 451.


Media Links

Meta Information
ContributorDavid Fig
Last update08/04/2014