In a few days an SA court will hear a crucial case against mining giant Anglo American, brought by Zambian children and women from the district of Kabwe, known as one of the world’s most toxic towns. In a landmark class action residents of Kabwe accuse Anglo’s SA subsidiary of sacrificing their lives and livelihoods on the altar of corporate greed.
The applicants argue that the company left them to live in a town where dangerous, even fatal, levels of lead had leached into the ground, water and air. Anglo left half a century ago when the Zambian mining sector was nationalised, but residents argue that the toxic legacy of its operations remains.
In particular, children and women of childbearing age are plagued with a litany of serious health issues. I visited Kabwe in 2022 and departed with conflicting feelings of horror but also hope, not just for Kabwe but for many other such “sacrificed” communities in Africa.
Kabwe has been home to lead mining for almost a century. However, the applicants allege that between 1925 and 1974 the Broken Hill lead mine was owned by the Anglo American group, and the company played a key role in controlling and supervising technical, medical and safety aspects of the operations of the mine.
The applicants argue that deficiencies in the mine’s operations during this period led to widespread poisoning of their community and has had intergenerational adverse health effects on the 100,000-plus children and women who are seeking compensation.
When I arrived in Kabwe in March reminders of this time were plain to see. Though the mining operations have long since ceased, ghosts of the past haunt the area. The region is polluted, with land toxic from lead dust. I had the opportunity to speak with former employees of the mine, and local residents — including children, women, and older individuals — whose lives continue to be blighted by the long-term health effects of this devastating mining history.
Philisiwe Banda was identified as a slow learner, but after a medical examination was found to have lead poisoning.
Adeline Phiri, mother to a seven-year-old boy, told me how her son was diagnosed with high lead concentration levels in his blood. His teeth were decaying and she described how his behaviour was a cause of concern as he was extremely hyperactive, had a high body temperature and was always complaining of pain. He was small for his age. Fortunately, after treatment at a local clinic his lead poisoning decreased significantly.
Another woman opened up about her child’s struggles at school. Philisiwe Banda was identified as a “slow learner”, but after a medical examination was found to have lead poisoning. The child was treated and given dietary recommendations, but her mother deplored the fact that many families in Kabwe could not afford them. While the child’s condition has improved, they still live in a polluted environment and during the dry season winds carry dust particles contaminated with lead.
Charles Banda, a former mineworker, told me he has no doubt that the Broken Hill Mine is a big contributor to the severe lead poisoning in Kabwe. He says the soil in the area has a 10%-15% lead contamination, making it impossible for residents to grow vegetables in their gardens, which is a critical source of sustenance for the community.
Banda said he had observed instances of children in the community displaying cognitive or intellectual impairment, with some cases later confirmed in school. He also told me about his third child, who has an intellectual disability caused by lead exposure, and whose behaviour is not typical for his age. But obtaining proper medical treatment has been challenging due to a shortage of medication and cost issues.
What these people so bravely told me is backed up by findings by the World Health Organisation that lead exposure can have serious consequences for the health of children. At high levels of exposure lead attacks the brain and central nervous system, causing a litany of severe health issues from coma to convulsion and even death. We also know there is no level of exposure known to be without harmful effects. As their parents have experienced and told me, children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with cognitive impairment and behavioural disorders.
I was truly inspired by the survivors’ remarkable courage and resilience. The people of Kabwe have had enough. They want their voices to be heard, they want their land and homes to be rehabilitated. They want compensation and health screening systems to be put in place. They want Anglo to right its wrongs. But Anglo denies responsibility, labelling the suit “opportunistic” and a waste of money and time. Most of all, the people of Kabwe want to know that their children will not be left with lasting health conditions and disabilities because of their living environment.
While this case represents an egregious and tragic example of corporate greed it is not unique, particularly in the extractive industry. We see communities across the world scarred, from one generation to the next, by multinational corporations trampling over their rights and too often treating Africa like their playground, from colonial times until now.
If the case against Anglo is successful it could set an important precedent for companies to be held liable and compelled to remediate their historical harm. Furthermore, it will send a clear message that multinational corporations cannot flagrantly disregard human rights in the pursuit of profit over people. With this case the people of Kabwe are endeavouring to change their present and future, from a sacrificial zone to a bold community that is paving the way for corporate accountability beyond borders.
When the hearing begins on January 20 Amnesty International will have the opportunity to make legal submissions and brief the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg as amicus curiae — a friend of the court — on the importance of certifying this class action and providing judicial remedies for the applicants. We stand squarely behind and in solidarity with the people of Kabwe.
Callamard is secretary-general of Amnesty International, which has joined the case as a friend of the court. Names have been withheld to protect survivors’ identities.