Global Asbestos Congress 2000


The mid 1950s was the turning point for occupational health and safety in South Africa's asbestos mines. It was the point at which the demand for crocidolite and amosite grew at an unprecedented rate; new mills and mines were opened; evidence of asbestosis was identified; some attempts was made to remove juveniles from the workforce. It was the point at which Chris Wagner, Chris Sleggs, Paul Marchand were in the process of discovering the link between mesothelioma and asbestos.xciii The failure of state authorities to monitor and reduce dust levels sealed the fate of the next generation of asbestos miners and those who lived in mining communities. The consequences of that failure are now being played out in British courts.

South African governments were directly involved in the development of the asbestos industry. The state recruited labour for the mines, and it subsidised freight costs. During the two world wars asbestos was classified as a strategic material and government monitored every shipment of fibre from Cape, T&N and GEFCO mines. The state was also complicit in the harsh and dangerous conditions which were characteristic of the industry. Over a period of forty years Department of Native Affairs and Health officers queried the incidence of scurvy, the lack of rations and medical care and the housing provided for African and Coloured labour. Cape and its competitors argued that although conditions were poor the benefits in terms of employment, taxation, and export earnings far outweighed the costs. When the risk of asbestosis and later mesothelioma were identified the same rationales were used to justify filthy mills and hazardous waste dumps.

At what point should Cape and GEFCO have addressed the problem of airborne fibre and what standards should they have used in their mines and mills? We know that a pandemic of asbestosis was identified among Penge miners in 1955 and one or two years earlier on the fields of the north west Cape. Many of the smaller mine owners would have known little of pneumoconiosis and even less of how to prevent disease. The behaviour of British owned companies has to be judged in a rather different light. Cape plc, for example, had reason to know about the risks of airborne fibre because from 1930 it was obliged to comply with British industrial law regarding the exposure of factory workers. Cape also had resources the smaller mines lacked. During two world wars Cape had important British and US military contracts which enabled it to make good profits. The company had the capacity to invest in ventilation, automatic bagging machines and leak proof containers. It chose not to. In 1955 knowledge of the risk of asbestosis was at least twenty five years old and Chris Wagner had already began to uncover the link between mesothelioma and asbestos. We know that in 1957 he discussed his concerns with Cape's management in London.xciv In 1959 he and Chris Sleggs presented their findings to an international conference on pneumoconiosis in Johannesburg. Six months later those results were published in The British Journal of Industrial Medicine. Cape and GEFCO responded with higher levels of production and dust sampling. The latter did little to reduce the risk of pneumoconiosis. It did nothing to reduce the risk of mesothelioma. Polluted mills still belched fibre over mine communities, women still cobbed asbestos, and Coloured and African children still played on tailings heaps.


xciii See C.Wagner, C.A.Sleggs, and P.Marchand, "Diffuse Pleural Mesothelioma and Asbestos Exposure in the North West Cape Province" British Journal of Industrial Medicine 17, 1960 pp. 260-65
xciv Interview with Dr.Chris Wagner, Weymouth, Dorset 22 March 1998.

All archival references are taken from the South African National Archives, Pretoria.