13 March 2003

SOUTH AFRICA: Compensation for asbestos victims settled

British company Cape plc, has agreed to a compensation settlement of £7.5 million for the 7,500 South Africans whose lives have been devastated by Cape’s asbestos operations. For the past six years since 1997, Cape has used every legal and political tactic to deny justice for the claimants. Hopes were raised when an out-of-court settlement of £21 million was agreed in December 2001, but Cape failed to abide by it.

Today’s settlement, which will be paid in one instalment, has been made in conjunction with another settlement by Gencor Ltd, a South African company which took over many of Cape’s operations when it left the country in 1979. As part of the larger settlement, Gencor will pay an additional £3.21million to the Cape claimants who were also exposed to Gencor’s operations.

Communities in Northern Cape and Limpopo provinces are likely to greet this latest announcement with a mixture of anger and relief - anger that so many have died before seeing justice and relief that families may finally see some compensation for the legacy of death and disease left by asbestos mining during apartheid. Cecil Skeffers of community group Concerned People Against Asbestos (CPAA) said, "while we can’t forget the effects Cape’s operations have had on thousands of people, we are delighted that Cape have finally made a settlement. We hope this will be an example to other multinational companies who practice in similar ways."

Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), SADOCC’s British partner organisation which has led the public campaign in Britain to hold Cape to account hopes that this time the settlement will be more than in name only. Aditi Sharma, ACTSA’s Head of Campaigns, said, "Cape has fought a long and petty battle while hundreds of South African claimants have died. Since the last agreement of December 2001 alone, more than 200 claimants have died. Nothing can ever compensate for this loss. However we welcome the settlement as it now gives some families a chance to invest in their children’s future."

Ngoako Ramathlodi, Premier of Limpopo province, said today, "once the money is divided amongst the claimants, it will amount to next to nothing. But we shall settle in acknowledgement that Cape has paid up and acknowledged its wrong doings. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to all those in the UK who have stood alongside our struggle and hope that this solidarity and support will continue in the many similar cases involving underprivileged people across the world."

The struggle for the 7,500 claimants may now be over, but justice remains elusive for any future claimants as the settlement does not allow for compensating beyond those already registered in the case. Another critical factor is that the settlement includes no provision for rehabilitating and clearing the asbestos dumps still surrounding many communities in South Africa. Aditi Sharma said, "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the mining industry as central to apartheid’s continuation. Multinational companies like Cape should be ashamed that they still deny their responsibility to make reparations to devastated communities. While this settlement is welcome, children in the Northern Cape and Limpopo have no alternative but to continue to play in asbestos dust in years to come." Despite the known dangers, Cape mined and milled asbestos in South Africa’s Northern Cape and Limpopo provinces for over 90 years until 1979, leaving behind a legacy of disease and pollution. Cape’s South African workers were exposed to 30 times the British legal limit of asbestos dust without adequate protection. (ACTSA)

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