The fight for justice continues for thousands suffering from the effects of lead poisoning in Zambia

Entrance to the former Kabwe mine. Photo by The Colonist Report, used with permission.

This story was written by Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi, Cindy Sipula, and Martin Vrba, and originally published by The Colonist Report Africa. A shortened version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Six years ago, Mumbi Derrick’s twin daughters, were tested positive for lead poisoning. He was devastated about the news, but said the only support he got was counselling from the government. He said the girls, now young women of 12 in seventh grade, are still suffering from the effects of this poisoning.  

In an interview with Global Voices, Derrick said: “The government has done nothing; all we hear in the media is what they are doing to suppress lead poisoning, but we do not see those results. Currently, nothing positive has been put in place with regard to remedial measures to address lead poisoning in Kabwe.’’ 

Mumbi Derrick, whose twin daughters have been diagnosed with lead poisoning. Photo by The Colonist Report, used with permission.

Meanwhile, in 2017, to help mitigate lead pollution, the World Bank approved USD 65.6 million in support of a five-year project for the Zambian government, targeted at critically polluted mining areas of the municipalities of Chingola, Kabwe, Kitwe, and Mufulira.

Precious Mwamba, an expectant mother, also told us, “Most times, people in the community, including myself suffer from influenza coughs and tend to have difficulty breathing due to inhaling these lead emissions.”

Precious Mwamba front of a market in Chowa, Kabwe. Photo by The Colonist Report, used with permission.

According to Mwamba, a vegetable vendor, lead-contaminated produce is regularly transported illicitly, and the vegetables remain contaminated even after being washed.

Damas Semechi moved to Kabwe when he was 21 years old, and he said the community was a good place to live at the time. Semechi, who is now the Development Committee Chairperson of Waya Ward, Kabwe, told us that the water that residents consume and everything they come into contact with are contaminated with lead. 

He added: “The gardens are all polluted with lead, and children also play in and around the lead-polluted environment.”

Damas Semechi in his office in Kabwe. Photo by The Colonist Report Africa, used with permission.

According to Semechi, in addition to lead pollution, the trucks emit dust from the untarred road, causing additional harm to people living near the mine. He explained that the only road used to transport these deposits passes through the community, so residents must constantly close their windows to reduce the amount of dust and emissions entering their homes.

A truck driving on an untarred road in Chowa, Kabwe causing a huge amount of dust. Photo by The Colonist Report Africa, used with permission.

He urged the government to assist in offering long-term solutions.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are no safe levels of lead exposure, as any amount of lead can cause harmful effects. Young children can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects and disabilities, mostly in the development of their brain and nervous system. Pregnant women’s exposure to lead can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and low birth weight.

History of lead poisoning and the fight for justice

In 1925, Anglo American plc, a multinational mining company, invested in a lead and zinc mine formerly known as the Broken Hill mine in Kabwe, Zambia. Reports alleged that this company played a key role in controlling and managing the mine until 1974, when Zambia’s mining industry was nationalised and it was finally closed in 1994. When the news about lead pollution broke out several years ago, the pollution was allegedly caused by this mine. Tens of thousands of children and women of childbearing age in Kabwe, Zambia, were poisoned by lead dust, as noted by the World Bank.

Richard Meeran and Mbuyisa Moleele, who are lawyers, were first contacted in 2003 by a Zambian environmental organisation about the Kabwe lead poisoning.  The legal case was against Anglo American South Africa Limited, the former head office and parent company of the group during the time of Anglo American’s involvement with the Kabwe mine.  In 1999, the Anglo-American plc moved its headquarters to the United Kingdom. As a result, the London company was not liable and could not be held responsible for the alleged widespread environmental lead pollution that occurred in Zambia.

The law firm Leigh Day and Mbuyisa Moleele filed a class action lawsuit on October 20, 2020, in the Gauteng Division of the High Court of South Africa, seeking compensation for 140,000 women and children in Kabwe, Zambia, who they claimed were affected by lead poisoning. 

Nevertheless, on December 15, 2023, the South African court denied certification for the proposed class action against Anglo American plc, despite the case receiving support from Amnesty International, the United Nations, and other international organisations.

In a 126-page judgement, Justice Leonie Windell stated: “The applicants seek permission to advance an untenable claim that would set a grave precedent. The precedent is that a business could be held liable half a century after its activities have ceased, to generations not yet born, as a result of being tested against future knowledge and standards unknown at the time.”

Anglo American plc had consistently denied responsibility for the lead poisoning. In an email to The Colonist Report, the company stated, “We will fervently defend ourself since we are not responsible for the situation in Kabwe — as the High Court in South Africa recently affirmed back in December 2023.”

While the judgement did deny the class action certification, it also acknowledged that a class action is indeed the only viable means for the victims of Kabwe to receive access to justice, noting, “Class action proceedings of this nature are the only realistic and appropriate method of determining these disputes.”

Anglo American plc stated, as shown in court filings, that “Leigh Day and Mbuyisa Moleele is seeking to hold only Anglo American plc liable for a mine that it acknowledges we didn’t own or operate, but it misrepresents the facts and ignores those who did own and operate the mine over time.” The company also told us, “We have stated from the outset that this claim is entirely misconceived and it is clear that the Court has recognised its multiple legal and factual flaws, deeming it not in the interests of justice for the class action to proceed.” 

Leigh Day and Mbuyisa Moleele argue that Anglo American plc is the one misrepresenting facts and ignoring their historic role in Kabwe, with Meeran adding, “While Anglo American plc claims that it is not liable for the situation in Kabwe because it was not the majority owner of the mine and was merely a ‘minor investor,’ the relevant precedent is clear that control and management, not a majority shareholding, that is relevant to the existence of a duty of care under the law of negligence.” 

Meeran said that the December 2023 judgement is considered “fundamentally flawed and an appeal has been lodged against the decision.”

“The main issue the judgement turned on was whether the claimants had an arguable case, and what the judge included was that the case was found to fail, which we strongly disagree with; in fact, we believe it is strong,” he added.

In an email to us, Anglo American plc stated, “We are not in a position to address all of your questions due to the complexity of this matter given the very long history and the passage of time.”

This story is produced with funding from  JournalismFund Europe.

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