`I was given no warning by anyone'

Monday 31 March 1997 23:02

All day long they stepped. Small black children, covered from head to foot in large shipping bags, trampling down deadly asbestos for their British bosses. As the fluffy amosite asbestos cascaded on to their heads, a supervisor kept them marching with the crack of his whip.

Watching the children, some of whom were under 12 years old, was a South African government medical official, Dr Gerrit Schepers, who recorded what he saw: "I believe these children to have had the ultimate of asbestos dust exposure. X-rays revealed several to have radiologic asbestos [asbestosis] before the age of 12."

Writing in 1949, Dr Schepers was a visitor to the Penge asbestos mine, which British entrepreneurs set up in north-east Transvaal after the discovery of amosite outcrops in 1907. The price of extracting the mineral is still being paid in death and injury, 90 years later.

This week a claim for damages is being made by three former black workers of the Penge mining company (Egnep) against its British parent, Cape plc. All three have asbestosis and claim that Cape ignored British safety standards and exposed the black South African workforce at Penge to deadly levels of suffocating fibres.

Matlaweng Mohlala, now 58, experienced similar conditions to those described by Dr Schepers. He was employed at 12 and spent 14 years packing asbestos fibre into sacks with his bare hands. He said his employers gave him no warning about the dangers.

"None at all by anybody," he said. "No gloves, boots or any protective clothing was supplied. I was X-rayed on engagement and discharge at Penge but not told anything was wrong."

Mr Mohlala now has a permanent burning in his chest, struggles to breathe and cannot work. Yet back in Britain, the dangers of asbestos had been known for more than a generation.

Graphs produced by Cape itself show that asbestos dust levels in the Penge factory were 12 to 35 times higher than permitted levels in Britain. In 1979 the mine was finally closed, but the problems remain. Medical researchers found that 80 per cent of black Penge miners who died between 1959 and 1964 had asbestosis. The average age of the men was 43.

Cape's operations have also incurred the wrath of rural Afrikaners living close to its plants. While Matlaweng Mohlala was packing brown asbestos by hand in Penge, Matthys Nel was a teenager, breathing in blue asbestos fibres in Prieska in the north-west Cape.

Researchers from the National Centre for Occupational Health found that 14 per cent of deaths in the town were from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos. Mr Nel died from mesothelioma in 1995 even though he neverworked at the Prieska mill, which was closed down in 1964. His brother and mother also died from the disease.

Two years earlier, in a private report the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research said that "an alarmingly high number of cases with mesothelioma have been discovered among people who live or who have lived in the north-western Cape area and there is evidence to suggest that this condition is associated with an exposure to asbestos dust inhalation".

The Nel family is claiming damages from Cape, along with Rachel Lubbe, 57, who is still alive but has mesothelioma.

Because the South African mining industry has few white workers it has had less union representation than other industries - and worse safety standards. It was not until 1954 that South African workers were given any regulatory protection against asbestos and fibre limits were not brought into line with Britain until 1976.

But Richard Meeran, a solicitor with Leigh Day, of London, who are representing the plaintiffs, said: "The British companies cannot hide behind the fact that they had no regulations in South Africa. That does not give them a licence to totally disregard hazardous dust levels."

Michael Pitt-Payne, Cape's company secretary, said Cape had pulled out of South Africa in 1979 and no longer used asbestos in its products. "We sold the companies that were doing the mining in South Africa in 1979 and as such we have got very few people here who had anything to do with that business at the time." He said the action was in the hands of the company's lawyers and he did not wish to comment further.

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