YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A Catholic leader in South Africa, a country where mineral wealth long has been an economic mainstay, says that today the Church in his country often encounters “the suffering face of Christ in sick mine workers.”

Former coal mine workers in the country have been suffering from lung diseases, and the Catholic Church has stepped in to help them find legal redress by assisting them in filing a lawsuit seeking compensation.

In an exclusive interview with Crux, Father Stan Muyebe, Director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern Africa Bishops’ Conference, says it is the Church’s business to accompany the sick miners “in their cries for justice.”

The following are excerpts of that interview.

Crux: Why is it the business of the church to be doing this?

Muyebe: South Africa still remains a country which is yet to heal from its enduring and painful legacy of apartheid.  What the Church is doing in the case of the sick miners is one of her contributions to the healing of the country from this painful legacy.

During apartheid, the mining economy was built around massive and systemic exploitation of Black labor.  Multinational corporations operating in the mining sector managed to create immense wealth, but undertook this while prioritizing wealth creation at the expense of the health of the working poor.  As a result, by 1994, the mining sector had generated thousands and thousands of ex-mine workers who are suffering from lung diseases. Some experts have called this “an epidemic of lung disease among ex-mine workers.”

It is against this background of apartheid legacy and the epidemic of lung disease among ex-miner workers that the Church in South Africa has been challenged to become a Samaritan Church, hearing the cries of the sick ex-miners, and seeing the suffering face of Christ in and through the One who once said to us, “I was sick and you visited me.”

In South Africa, we encounter the suffering face of Christ in the sick mine workers and this is consummated by our encounter of the suffering face of Christ in the Eucharist.

It is the sick miners who are the subject of the lawsuit. What we have done as a Church is to accompany them in their cries for justice, help them with access to legal assistance and facilitate court preparation so that they are able to lodge the class action in the high court.

The lawsuit seeks “legal remedies for sick miners etc.  What exactly are you looking at in terms of the remedies?

After apartheid, the government established the truth and reconciliation commission.  Ideally, the truth and reconciliation commission should have been the one to address the apartheid legacy of the lung disease epidemic among the mine workers, but the commission failed to do this.

During apartheid, there was massive violation of two categories of human rights: the civic and political rights as well as social and economic rights. The truth and reconciliation commission focused on the first category at the exclusion of the second.  It failed to address the need for reparation and healing of memories for the mine workers as victims of the massive violation of health and economic rights. The multinational corporations operating in South Africa are very powerful, and their influence contributed to lack of focus on the victims of human rights violations during apartheid-era mining.

With respect to the civic and political rights, the truth and reconciliation recommended reparation to the families who lost their loved ones as a result of the violent repression and assassination campaigns undertaken by the apartheid state.

With respect to the mine workers, the sick miners are demanding reparation (money compensation). They know that reparation may not adequately repair the loss and damage suffered during apartheid, but it will contribute to the recovery of their dignity.

The country needs healing and reconciliation. Genuine healing and reconciliation as a nation will arise from encounter with the Risen Lord, encounter with one another, and the symbolic gestures of reparation.

What is the status of the lawsuit right now?

Since 1994, there have been different lawsuits to recover compensation for ex-mine workers who contracted lung diseases during apartheid-era mining.

First was the case against mining companies who operated in the asbestos sector.

Second was the case against mining companies who operated in the gold sector.  It was resolved in the form of a settlement in 2019.  The Church was involved in the last phase of mediation when there was a deadlock on some of the issues.

Third is the case against mining companies who operated in the coal sector. It is what the Church is doing now with the ex-mine workers who worked in the coal mines.  Several multinational corporations operated in the coal mines during apartheid. The class action has so far been lodged against South 32, (Australian company), BHP group, and the Anglo-American Group (UK).  When the court preparations are finalized, there will be another case lodged against Glencore.

This is an application for the lawsuit to be certified.  It is still the initial phase of the court process.

In Laudato si’, Pope Francis criticized multinational corporations for setting high standards for protection of the environment and the poor when they are operating in the global north, but ignoring such standards when operating in Africa and other countries in the global south. The Church in Africa should be at the center of defending the dignity of the poor and the sacredness of God’s creation when the multinational corporations choose to prioritize profit over human dignity and environment.

How serious are the diseases that sick miners are now suffering from?  How many are they?  How many have died?

As indicated above, apartheid-era mining generated an epidemic of lung diseases among mine workers, in a period covering more than 30 years. The conservative estimate of the numbers of the sick miners in the class is 100,000 to 200,000.

In 2020, the World Health Organization estimated that in one of the lung diseases, Tuberculosis, there are 2,500-3,000 cases reported per 100,000 individuals. This rate is 10 times higher than what the World Health Organization considers an epidemic emergency.