How The Catholic Church Tackles Those Who Exploit South Africa’s Poor

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The Catholic church in South Africa began shepherding a class action against the country’s three major coal mining firms seeking compensation for sick former workers and their families who died as a result of lung disease and other associated illnesses.

The outcome of this multi-million dollar lawsuit against the mining firms — South32, BHP Billiton and Seriti Power — could have a bearing on the lives of millions of current and former coal miners from all over southern Africa that toiled in South African coal mines for decades, in the process contracting deadly respiratory diseases. 

This is the second time the church is taking on miners, having being involved in a similar lawsuit on the behalf of some former mine workers that contracted fatal respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis and silicosis, while working in South African gold mines.

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The protracted lawsuit ended with a 5 billion rand ($400 million) settlement in 2018. The landmark case involved some 500,000 South Africans and other migrant workers from across southern African countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Botswana and Eswatini that suffered work-related health loses on 82 South African gold mines in the decades since March 1965.

The church is now back in court since August, this time to seek justice for sick former coal miners who contracted fatal respiratory diseases. It is a David versus Goliath fight that the Catholic church is determined to ensure that the former miners win and possibly receive the monetary compensation they deserve.

‘It’s About Dignity of The Most Vulnerable’

The director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference is a priest named Stanslaus Muyebe. He explained to Religion Unplugged why the church has taken it upon itself to help these sick miners and the families of dead miners in their search for justice.

“In its social teaching. The Catholic church defends the dignity of the most vulnerable in the society, including vulnerable workers,” Muyebe said. “South Africa has a troubled history of labor exploitation in the mines, which has generated an epidemic of sick miners. It is in the interest of defending their dignity that the church decided to stand in solidarity with the sick miners and their call for social justice. The sick miners that we work with are no longer working in the mines and are no longer represented by the trade unions. They are therefore voiceless and powerless. The church is standing with them as the voiceless in the society.”

The church’s task is not made easier by the fact that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Centuries of ruthless exploitation under colonization, which was later compounded by apartheid, kept a majority of South Africans under white subjugation, laying the basis for the glaring socio-economic inequalities that have endured. This legacy of apartheid — together with the supposed “White Monopoly Capital” — has been blamed for the inequalities and injustices throughout the country. 

The World Bank lists South Africa as the most unequal country in the world, meaning that Africa’s most advanced economy does not equally benefit all of its citizens. The unemployment rate in South Africa is 32%, while 63% of the country’s population of nearly 60 million live in poverty. 

Even though South Africa accounts for the largest number of millionaires and billionaires of any nation in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank report showed that the richest 20% of people in South Africa control almost 70% of the country’s resources. As a legacy of apartheid, race has always played a bigger role in these inequalities. Although whites make up just a small minority, they control over 70 percent of land, a historical injustice that has always been regarded as ticking time bomb.

“South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world,” Muyebe said. “Living in a country where there is a huge gap between the poorest of the poor and the rich, the Church has chosen to stand in solidarity with the poorest of the poor so that we can listen to God’s voice and presence in the lives of the excluded. The country is also struggling to recover from the painful history of apartheid and racial reconciliation is still a work-in-progress. The Church is standing as an instrument of God’s reconciliation and in some cases, genuine reconciliation struggles to unfold when there is no social justice.”

Rights Violations By Powerful Entities

Muyebe shared a catalogue of some of the many social justice cases that the Catholic church has taken up on the behalf of the poor and weak.

“We have been involved in various causes of social justice in solidarity with the poorest of the poor in the country,” he said. “The poor are victims of human rights violations perpetrated by powerful companies.” 

Apart from the sick miners, the church has assisted various groups of the voiceless poor to lodge class action on various matters. In 2018, hundreds of low-income people died or became disabled after eating listeria-infected bologna or polony as it is known in Africa, one of the foods for the poorest of the poor. The case is still in court.   

In South Africa, the public transport used by the poor is the mini-bus. Most of such mini-buses are produced by Toyota. To cut corners and earn massive profit, Toyota illegally converted vans into mini-buses to be used as public transport. Since the conversion was illegal (and had inherent technical fault), hundreds of such mini-buses were involved in fatal accidents and many people lost their lives.

Last year, a waste dam for a diamond mine collapsed, resulting in loss of homes for the surrounding community. It was alleged that the mine owners knew of the technical fault of the mine waste dam and the likelihood of a collapse, but did not take adequate measures to prevent it.

Another concern has been the high levels of public-sector corruption and how public funds often go missing. This deprives many of the resources needed to uplift them out poverty. In 2016, a group of Catholic priests asked the Public Protector to investigate the president’s office for corruption. The investigation linked to this complaint later escalated into the establishment of a national commission of inquiry into corruption in South Africa. The commission has recently submitted its findings.  There is now an engagement to get the government to implement the findings of the commission.

Labor Exploitation in Commercial Farms  

Two critical sectors — mining and agricultural — have been built at the back of labor exploitation. Nearly 30 years into being a constitutional democracy, the agricultural sector still has the legacy of labor exploitation, particularly farm workers in plantation and commercial farms. It is difficult for farm workers to establish unions through which they can defend their labor rights and other rights. 

The Catholic church has assisted farmers to establish a workers’ forum, called Farm Dwellers Movement of South Africa, through which they work together to defend their labor rights and other issues. They have been able to initiate various legal actions as well as submissions for remedial action to the South African Human Rights Commission as well as the Master of the High Court, the office that has recently been established by the Land Court and the Constitutional Court to oversee government in its implementation of Land Tenancy Act.   

One of the legacies of the apartheid-era agricultural sector has been the forced removal of rural communities from their land so that it can be used for commercial farming. Between 1994 and 1998, the government allowed the victims of forced removals to submit their claims for land restitution and reparations. A majority of such victims have not yet managed to get their land back or some form of reparation. To promote justice for such victims as well as racial reconciliation in the country, the church has been working on issues of restitution and reparations for rural communities who were victims of forced removals during apartheid. 

They have established their movement, called the Land Rights Coalition of South Africa, which has managed to initiate various legal action and engagement with the South African government on issues regarding land reparation. They have also been working closely with various groups of farm owners to address the problem of farm killings. In some cases, the church has been involved in facilitation of mediation in such matters. 

The church has also been facilitating mediations to get the white farm owners and the rural communities who have been beneficiaries of land restitution program to work together and ensure continued productivity on the farms that communities have acquired through land restitution program.

Church ‘Doing A Good Job’

Lloyd Kuveya, assistant director at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said the Catholic church has been playing a critical role in the protection and advancement of rights in South Africa.

“These sick workers had not been compensated by the mining firms and it was therefore pertinent for the Catholic church to step in and ensure that the big mining firms are held accountable,” Kuveya said. “This lawsuit will help many other employees in the mining sector who have fallen sick as a result of working in the mines to get adequate compensation from the mines. So the Catholic Church and other like-minded organizations and lawyers are doing a good job to ensure accountability for human rights violations by business entities.”

He said the organization has started training lawyers on social justice litigation so that they develop capacities to hold corporations accountable for human rights violations against the most vulnerable and marginalized members of South African society.

“Most of these people are indigent and cannot afford to sue these companies and hold them accountable,” Kuveya said. “It is therefore important that civil society, which includes faith-based organizations, help such people by paying for legal services to hold these big businesses accountable for any human rights violations and environmental degradation.”





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