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Kabwe Landscape

Court rules United Nations agencies can intervene in Kabwe lead poisoning class action

The High Court in Johannesburg has today ruled that a group of UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups can intervene in a dispute over the authorisation of a class action against Anglo American South Africa on behalf of victims of lead poisoning around the Kabwe mine in Zambia.

Posted on 25 November 2022

South African Attorneys, Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys, working with Leigh Day, have filed the class action lawsuit against Anglo American South Africa Limited on behalf of a class estimated to number 140,000 Zambian children and women of childbearing age.

The Kabwe mine operated between 1915-1994 and was part of the Anglo American Group from 1925-1974. The claim arises from environmental contamination of communities in Kabwe District. Medical studies conducted over the past 45 years have consistently shown massive levels of lead in a significant proportion of young children in Kabwe. Generations of children have been affected, including from lead encephalopathy and death from lead poisoning. Anglo American denies liability, placing the blame on others, in particular ZCCM, the state-owned entity to which the mine was transferred in 1974.

The UN bodies noted that the class action was the claimants’ only means of access to justice and that Anglo American had publicly endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, international standards which include the right to access to justice for victims of human rights abuse. They argue that the apparent conflict between Anglo American’s endorsement of the principles and its opposition to the class action ought to be a factor in determining whether the class action should be allowed to proceed.

Following a hearing on 10 November 2022, the High Court in Johannesburg today gave judgment permitting the UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups to intervene in the class certification hearing scheduled on 20 January 2023. Anglo American had previously consented to interventions by Amnesty International and the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

The next stage in the case is a certification hearing to be held at the Johannesburg High Court from 20th to 30th January 2023. The certification hearing will examine the arguments and voluminous expert evidence produced by the parties to decide whether it is in the interests of justice for the case to proceed as a class action.

In a joint statement following today’s judgment, Zanele Mbuyisa, Director of Mbuyisa Moleele, and Richard Meeran, partner at Leigh Day, said:

“We welcome today’s judgment that the UN Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups can intervene in the class action. Corporate legal accountability and access to justice for the Kabwe lead poisoning victims has been outstanding for generations and is of paramount importance."

Richard Meeran

Richard Meeran

Richard is co-head of the firm's international department

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