Zambia lead poisoning case spills to the courts


Anglo American

JOHANNESBURG, (CAJ News) – PITTING children and women against a giant mining company, the case is dubbed a David-vs-Goliath duel.

This lawsuit to be heard in South Africa, brought by Zambian civilians against mining firm, Anglo American, is seen as an opportunity to send a signal to multinational companies not to violate human rights of communities where they extract natural resources.

Amnesty International and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) have applied to intervene in the unprecedented class action lawsuit by the Kabwe community from central Zambia.

The claimants are seeking compensation for the long-term impacts of lead mining.

The South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg is at a later date to decide whether to certify the unique class action.

Dr Atilla Kisla, SALC’s International Justice Cluster lead, said the legal action has the potential to close an accountability gap and set a powerful precedent for corporate accountability.

“This case is an opportunity for South Africa to send a strong signal to multinational companies that their obligations not to violate human rights do not end at the country’s border,” Kisla said.

Residents of Kabwe brought the civil lawsuit against Anglo American’s South African subsidiary in late 2020.

The legal action is on behalf of an estimated 100 000 children and women.

They report suffering injury from lead exposure as a result of century-long mineral extraction near their homes.

According to the organisations, Amnesty International and SALC’s joint submission as amici curiae (friends of the court) provides an analysis of international human rights standards and South Africa’s constitutional protections to assist the court in adjudicating this matter.

“This class action lawsuit is an emblematic David vs Goliath case and a significant, long-overdue step towards justice for the people of Kabwe, who have suffered from lead poisoning for years due to the mining activities of multinational corporations in their communities,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa.

The human rights groups believe South Africa has a duty to regulate the conduct of its companies beyond its territorial borders and to protect, respect and remediate human rights in the context of corporate activities.

Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC’s) International Justice Cluster lead, Dr Atilla Kisla

Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC’s) International Justice Cluster lead, Dr Atilla Kisla

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) is representing Amnesty and SALC.

Sibusiso Tshabalala, External Communications Manager at Anglo American in South Africa, said the mining entity would fight the lawsuit.

“We are, of course, concerned about the contamination at Kabwe and any suffering that comes from it. Contamination is not acceptable anywhere,” he told CAJ News Africa.

“We have every sympathy for the people of Kabwe and their plight but we do intend to defend ourselves because we do not believe that we are responsible for the current situation.”

Tshabalala described the case as “a complex matter given the very long history.”

He narrated the mine in Kabwe was nationalised in the early 1970s and was operated by a number of Zambian entities, including Zambia Broken Hill Development Company, for 20 years to 1994 when the mine was closed.

“The claim fails to take into account this period, as well as the role of a number of parties in the post-closure management of the mine site during the 27 years since 1994,” said Tshabalala.

“One aspect of the allegations being made is particularly misleading, namely the assertion that there is a linear correlation between volumes of lead produced over time and contamination,” he added.

“We believe that this assertion is fundamentally flawed, because of the implementation over time of improving technologies to reduce emissions (an issue that certain of the Claimants’ own experts acknowledge), and the apparent subsequent failure to maintain the efficacy of some of those technologies post nationalisation,” Tshabalala said.

In its defence, Anglo American has also cited records by the ZCCM Investments Holdings, a successor company to Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Limited (ZCCM Ltd), which indicated a significant deterioration of operating standards under its ownership of the Kabwe mine after 1974.

ZCCM is quoted as reporting the collapse and eventual removal of the critical air pollution control devices.

It adds the period post-1989 “most likely represents the worst period of lead pollution, in the history of the Kabwe Mine.”

“It is unfortunate that we have been forced into a legal process, as it constrains what we can say and do,” Tshabalala said.

The spokesperson said Anglo American’s “reputation as a responsible miner is being held to ransom.”

“We, therefore, have little option but to defend ourselves against the allegations. We simply don’t believe we are responsible for the situation,” Tshabalala maintained.

– CAJ News