Originally posted at In These Times

South Africa’s mining industry has been plastered across international headlines in recent days following the massacre of 34 protesting platinum mine workers in Marikana. This week, thousands of striking workers marched to protest the assault on labor rights and economic security by both the police and corporations.

But while the media’s gaze has fixed on roiling unrest at Lonmin, the more insidious crisis of safety conditions in the mines remains mostly buried below the surface. Over the years, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers have been gradually sickened or killed by an epidemic that has largely gone ignored by the industry and the post-Apartheid government.

But now, some workers are resisting injustice in the mines by going to court, with a group of lawsuits alleging that three gold mining companies sickened many employees with toxic exposures that are tied to “varying degrees of silicosis”–a disease that causes chronic breathing problems–as well as tuberculosis and lung cancer.

The legal claims, which target AngloGold Ashanti (formerly Anglo American), Harmony Gold Mining Company, and Gold Fields, have been advanced by a recent landmark ruling by the South African Constitutional Court. The decision affirms that injured workers have the right to sue employers for occupational health-related damages.

The principle behind the litigation, according to Richard Lewis, an attorney with Hausfield LLP who is assisting the South African counsel, is that that the country’s mining regulations, some stretching back decades, as well as common law and the constitution, “impose a duty on the employer to provide safe and healthy working conditions.”

Lewis notes the decision is “uniquely” progressive, even compared to the legal framework in richer industrialized countries like the United States, because the recent court decision effectively offers an alternative to the traditional workers’ compensation system, which is known for woefully inadequate payments to sick workers–and for discrimination against black claimants.

“Usually one’s claim against an employer is limited to the workers’ compensation system,” Lewis says. “You can’t go to court in the civil common law system and sue for damages. But here… in South Africa the miners do have that right, to go beyond the compensation system and into the common law courts.” (In the United States, injured workers often face dysfunctional state workers’ compensation bureaucracies that tend to get ensnared by severe budget pressures.)

Even when workers aren’t being mowed down by police, death is never far from South Africa’s mines; workers have been routinely exposed to toxins with appallingly minimal physical protection. In a Reuters investigation published in March, a mine worker interviewed in Lesotho, who had worked for Gold Fields for more than three decades before being laid off in 2008, explained the do-it-yourself safety protocol:

“The only safety gear they gave us was gloves,” said 55-year-old Tele Nchaka… “We didn’t have masks. To stop the dust, we just had old T-shirts that we used to make wet.”

The impact of the gold miner litigation could be massive: According to Hausfeld, “between 320,000 and 500,000 black southern African gold miners have contracted silicosis and other occupational lung diseases in prior decades. The highest recorded rates of TB in the world have been found in the gold mines of South Africa and the disease figures have remained unconscionably high for decades.”

The next step for the current plaintiffs is to press forward with certification as a legal “class” and move toward a trial. The structure of the litigation leaves the door open for more workers to join the suit down the line, and some experts anticipate an explosion of claims due to the size of the workforce, the widespread presence of migrant workers from countries like Botswana and Malawi, and the prevalence of silicosis.

As with many other countries, including the United States, the health threats plaguing mine workers aren’t so much a product of lax laws; regulatory conditions have somewhat improved in recent years. The problem, says Lewis, is systemic failure of enforcement:

There is no lack of knowledge on how to prevent occupational lung disease. [It’s] not so much that the laws are weak, but that they’re not enforced. And so in reality they become weak and the workers don’t get the protection they deserve and that they need. And I think that’s true around the world.

This is the tragic subtext to many of these mine safety crises–from the chokehold of black lung in Appalachia to the Chinese mine explosions that regularly bury workers alive. The laws on the books aren’t applied on the ground, and workers are generally left at the mercy of the regulatory bodies that lack the staff and institutional capacity to hold employers accountable or prevent future hazards.

The claimant at the head of the compensation lawsuit that led to the breakthrough ruling, Thembekile Mankayi, died just before the court issued its decision in March 2011, as a result of respiratory illness attributed to his work at an underground mine near Johannesburg. Mankayi had toiled for Anglogold from 1979 to 1995, but although his career spanned through the fall of Apartheid, his body ultimately expired before he could see justice served in a democratic South Africa.

But some redemption may be on the horizon for many others sickened by the mines if the legal system finally provides them fair compensation. Under a neoliberal economic regime, South Africa’s mines remain haunted by the ghosts of Apartheid. But at least for some of the workers whose bodies bear the scars of that history, justice is no longer so far out of reach.