JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa's highest court on Thursday ordered a top Johannesburg-based mining company to compensate the family of a dead mineworker, overturning a law which prohibited mineworkers with lung diseases from claiming compensation.
The judgment against AngloGold Ashanti came nearly a week after the death of Thembekile Mankayi, whose lawyer said contracted tuberculosis and breathing problems from 17 years of labor in dust-filled mines.
"Given the singular risks of mining, and its unique historical role in our country's wealth, there is nothing irrational in preserving employees' common-law claims against their employers ..." Justice Sisi Khampepe said in the Constitutional Court ruling.
The decision will allow tens of thousands of mineworkers with lung disease to claim compensation, Mankayi's lawyer Richard Spoor said.
"For the last 100 years, employers have had effective immunity," Spoor said. "It didn't matter how many people got sick or how many people died — they had no incentive at all to take effective measures to prevent these diseases from occurring."
Spoor said mining companies will now be held accountable for "unexcusable and dangerous" conditions in the mines.
AngloGold Ashanti said in a statement Thursday that the company is working to improve underground conditions. They said they hope the ruling will not threaten the viability of the industry, which is a pillar of South Africa's economy and vital in attracting foreign investment.
South Africa's largest investment in occupational health was researching how to reduce dust in mines, said Jabu Maphalala, a communications adviser for the Chamber of Mines, an industry trade group.
Lesiba Seshoka, spokesman for South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers, hailed the court ruling as a "huge achievement.
"This is a landmark ruling that set a precedent," Seshoka said. "For many years, miners contracted diseases in mines, and the mining companies fired them with nothing in terms of compensation."
Seshoka said the union would work with miners to compile a register of people who died from and are still suffering with lung disease to file a class-action suit against the mining companies.