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On 9 May 2022, Amnesty International and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) have applied to intervene in an unprecedented class action lawsuit. The case was brought by a group of children and women against the mining giant Anglo American in South Africa and seeks compensation for the long-term impacts of lead mining in Kabwe, Zambia. In that regard, the joint amicus curiae submission focuses international human rights standards and domestic law in order to provide the court with an legal assessment of corporate accountability for transnational corporations, the right to remedy and access to justice.

“This class action has the potential to close an outrageous 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, ” said SALC’s Dr. Atilla Kisla, International Justice Cluster lead.

In October 2020, residents of Kabwe brought this civil lawsuit against Anglo American’s South African subsidiary, on behalf of an estimated 100,000 children and women, who report suffering injury from lead exposure as a result of century-long mineral extraction near their homes. The Court’s decision of whether to certify this class action will unequivocally affect victims’ right to an effective remedy and access to justice. The South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg will soon have to decide whether to certify this unique class action denouncing the adverse human rights impacts of a South African company’s mining activities abroad.

Background

The Kabwe lead mine—once known as the “Broken Hill”mine— was allegedly operated and managed by Anglo American between 1925 and 1974 and reportedly contributed to extensive environmental pollution in towns and communities living in the vicinity of the mining site.

Today, experts describe Kabwe as one of the most lead-polluted places on earth. Medical studies have shown that children from Kabwe have record-high levels of lead in their blood. Children and pregnant women are at particular risk from lead toxicity, which is known to cause permanent damage to internal organs, including the brain.

Joint Submission by Amnesty International and SALC

Amnesty 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. The human rights groups stress that 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. They further argue that the Bill of Rights imposes obligations upon South African companies such as Anglo American.

In that regard, the joint submission focuses, among others, on:

  • The right to remedy under international and domestic law and how a certification of class action might impact such a right
  • A state’s duties with respect to transnational corporate human rights abuses
  • Corporate obligations not to interfere with human rights deriving from international human rights standards and domestic South African law
  • To what extent the Bill of Rights in line with international human rights standards can impose obligations upon corporations that act outside the borders of South Africa
  • How the class action can ensure access to justice for victims of human rights abuses.

Amnesty International and SALC are represented by Adv Karabo van Heerden and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS).

Heads of Argument

News Release
9 May 2022 – South Africa: Human rights groups intervene in historic class action for lead poisoning launched by Zambia children