Heat and dust

Once, the children of Prieska played in snow drifts under the South African sun. The snow was soft, silvery and deadly - fibres which blew in from a British-owned asbestos mill. Forty years on, thousands whose lives were ruined are bringing their case to the House of Lords. They call it the British Bhopal - but will they find justice at last?
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Dusty and windy, cold in winter and scorching in summer, the semi-desert Northern Cape of South Africa never loses its bleakness. But 40 years ago, it was fun growing up here in Prieska. Children had their own special snow to play with - silvery dust which you could roll around in down at the asbestos mill, or gather up all over town and form into malleable clay. It is said to have entered their lives - and their lungs - courtesy of a British company, Cape Asbestos.

Dusty and windy, cold in winter and scorching in summer, the semi-desert Northern Cape of South Africa never loses its bleakness. But 40 years ago, it was fun growing up here in Prieska. Children had their own special snow to play with - silvery dust which you could roll around in down at the asbestos mill, or gather up all over town and form into malleable clay. It is said to have entered their lives - and their lungs - courtesy of a British company, Cape Asbestos.

"It was the softest stuff you can imagine - smoother than silk," says Fanie Lombaard, who was born in Prieska and is now mayor of the blighted town, 500 miles west of Johannesburg, where once the rugby field, the nine-hole golf course and all the roads were compacted with asbestos waste. The fibres were everywhere, carried in the air from the mill into every nook and cranny by the relentless Kalahari wind. "My lungs are clear. I had a test six weeks ago. The air here is good these days. Not everyone gets asbestosis,'' says the mayor.

But many do. Hundreds here and in other parts of South Africa are believed to have died as a result of the mining and milling which once made this country the world's top producer of blue and brown asbestos. Thousands of poor families lost their breadwinners. Asbestos, which for much of the 20th century was used for insulation and building, is now banned in most countries. But asbestosis, a lung disease, and mesothelioma - the painful and deadly cancer it causes - can take 50 years to develop. People are still falling ill.

Next Monday in the House of Lords, lawyers for 3,000 South African asbestos workers will begin the latest round in their battle for the right to claim compensation in British courts. The case has been described as a "British Bhopal'' - after the chemical disaster in 1984 at an Indian plant owned by a United States company, Union Carbide - and has powerful implications for companies' accountability for their activities in the Third World.

Audrey van Schalkwyk, a 54-year-old senior nurse, was 12 years old when she went mining with her parents at Koegas, once the world's largest blue asbestos mine, two hours from Prieska. "I was born in Koegas in 1946 and I grew up there. Many of us children worked because our parents on the mine did not have anyone to look after us, so they took us along. My father would go into the mine in a locomotive with headlights. They would bring the asbestos rock out in coco pans and we, the mothers and children, would break it up with our hands and with hammers, getting the fibres out and sorting the different grades. From there, it would be taken to the mill.''

Mrs van Schalkwyk, who has asbestosis, still manages to work at Prieska hospital but endures severe back pain - caused by her lungs - to bring home a salary to help support her eight children and her 79-year-old mother who has mesothelioma. Mrs van Schalkwyk's father died from the disease in 1993, as did her brother in 1988. "Nobody told us,'' she says. "None of us knew of the dangers. There was no protective clothing. I worked there for three years. Nobody wore masks.''

By 1958, the year Mrs van Schalkwyk began working at Koegas, the dangers of asbestos were widely known internationally and workers in European factories, including those owned by Cape, were wearing masks. From the 1960s, the asbestos exported by Cape from South Africa carried warning stickers. In fact, the first British regulations were introduced in 1931. In 1940, US doctors established the link between asbestos and mesothelioma. Even in Nazi Germany, in 1943, asbestosis and mesothelioma were declared as compensatable occupational diseases.

Yet in apartheid South Africa, mine and mill workers - who were mainly black or mixed-race - claim they were neither protected nor informed by their British bosses. Cape had begun operating the Koegas mine in 1893 and it did not pull out of Prieska until 1979. At the peak of production, in 1953, some 5,000 black miners were employed at Koegas. Clean-up of the site, which is about two hours' drive from Prieska, only began four years ago, courtesy of the new South African government.

Today, the old mill on the northwestern edge of Prieska has been demolished. The site of the mill has been fenced off but the school is still used as a dormitory for boarders. In a town with 72 per cent unemployment, mothers and children collect firewood on the slope down to the Orange River. They drag it across scrubland strewn with lumps of spongy grey-black asbestos fibres.

Mrs van Schalkwyk, who will be in London next week for the House of Lords hearing, says that apart from compensation for people dying in pain and poverty, a thorough clean-up of Prieska is needed. "The environment is still bad. The area of the mill and school should be completely covered over and all our roads should be tarred,'' she says. The South African government is spending £160,000 to replace all asbestos roofs in the town, many of which are revealing fibres due to hail damage, but nothing is being done about the 500 township homes built with asbestos-based cement.

In one such dwelling, Hendrik Phetlo, a 46-year-old former miner, is taking his last breaths in squalor and poverty. He has a suit or two hanging on a hook in his bare bedroom. The electricity meter is low and, as his power-hungry respirator bubbles away, he struggles to speak. "I was diagnosed with asbestosis when I was 29. I worked at Koegas for five years, then I joined the army. In those days I could run a marathon in two-and-a-half hours.

"Now, since things got really bad about a month ago, I have to stay in bed. Just getting to the toilet can take all my strength. The big problem is the money. My pension is 520 rands (£52) a month, but out of that I must pay the water, school fees for my child and buy food. Then there is the electricity. The respirator will take about 100 rands every three weeks,'' he says.

Gideon Smith, one of the three GPs serving Prieska's 14,000 population, says there is no effective treatment for asbestos-related disease and that South Africa's occupational disease bureau only offers limited pensions to victims. "It can take years to get compensated and the big tragedy is that it is the fathers, the breadwinners, who succumb. Added to this, the bureau compensates workers but in Prieska the level of exposure was overwhelming. People lived in a cloud of this stuff. We are now seeing the legacy of this and I believe we'll see a lot more suffering and deaths.''

Even though the 3,000 claimants could in theory bring their case in South Africa, that country's legal-aid system is in a state of collapse due to the high crime rate. Among the claimants, all of whom are very poor, there are also more than 300 dependants of those who have died, who would not be able to bring a case at all under South African law. Then there is the matter of the compensation itself - which is likely to be higher in the UK, given precedents and the value of the pound.

Cape plc, whose London lawyers, Davies Arnold Cooper, declined to comment when contacted by The Independent this week, has previously argued in court that the levels of fibre found naturally in asbestos-rich areas of South Africa could have caused illness and there is no way of proving that its mining operations contributed to people's sickness. Cape, which is now a building materials company whose work includes asbestos clean-ups, and which has pre-tax profits of £13m, also argues that the case should be heard in South Africa since the alleged wrongdoing occurred there.

The case, which is funded by British legal aid, has come to the House of Lords even though a British high court judge in 1998 gave the go-ahead for five South African asbestos claimants to sue in the UK. When their British lawyers, Leigh, Day & Co, added more names to the claim, Cape argued that this represented a material change.

Richard Meeran of Leigh, Day & Co, said: "Cape orchestrated its South African operations from England and was probably aware that the conditions in South Africa would not have been tolerated in England. The profits came back to England. Cape is a British-based company which no longer has any connection with South Africa.''

He said the claimants' case would be strengthened in the House of Lords next week by an "unprecedented'' submission from the South African government calling on the case to be heard in the UK. The British court of appeal last year ruled that South African public interest would be better served if the case was heard in South Africa.

According to Action for Southern Africa (Actsa), the successor to Anti-Apartheid which is backing the asbestos victims, it is fair to describe the case as a British Bhopal. Actsa's director, Ben Jackson, said: "If anything, what Cape did in South Africa was no different to Union Carbide in India. You could say that Union Carbide was negligent, but not intentionally culpable. Cape sustained inhumane employment conditions for years and it is likely to have known that the levels of asbestos would cause many deaths.''

Cape is estimated to have spent £30m on out-of-court settlements for its workers at British factories - in Barking and Hebden Bridge - who produced asbestos products until operations were suspended in 1968.

Mr Meeran said: "Cape cannot halt the Italian claim because of the Brussels convention, to which all EU countries are party and under which it is mandatory to sue a defendant where it is based. The South African case is critical. Companies should not be allowed to apply double standards in developing countries without fear of being held accountable.''

For Mr Phetlo, it is almost too late; for Mrs van Schalkwyk's mother also. But for Prieska, where real snow never falls but innocent children play - and labour - among the poisonous fibres, there is still time for recompense.