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South Africa – Human rights groups intervene in historic class action for lead poisoning launched by Zambian children

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Amnesty International and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) have applied to intervene in an unprecedented class action lawsuit in a case brought by a group of Zambian children and women against the mining giant Anglo American in South Africa, the organizations have announced after filing papers today. The claimants are seeking compensation for the long-term impacts of lead mining in Kabwe, Zambia.

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. If the case proceeds, it will offer a unique opportunity for children and women from Kabwe to have a day in court.

“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.

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.

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. 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.

“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 Dr. Atilla Kisla, SALC’s International Justice Cluster lead.

Amnesty and SALC are represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) and Advocate Karabo van Heerden in this matter.


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.