Our virtual discussion on the human and environmental impact of historical mining operations is about to begin. us06web.zoom.us/webinar/regist…
Our head of department @RichardMeeran begins today's webinar on Human Rights and Toxic Mining Legacies in Southern Africa. We have seen graphic examples of multinational corporations abusing human rights in the Global South in our legal cases.
Richard briefly discusses some of these cases, such as Cape plc Leigh Day represented 7,500 South African asbestos miners in a claim against Cape plc and the insurers of Gencor, a South African mining company.
Our first panelist is Muleya Mwananyanda from @AmnestySARO. @MyleyaM grew up in Kabwe, Zambia, and has led advocacy and campaign work in multiple countries and engaged with governments on public policy and human rights issues.
Next on our panel: award-winning author and presenter @DavidOlusoga OBE. His work fronting pioneering series like: A House Through Time, Black and British: A Forgotten History and The World’s War, shines a light on the underrepresented aspects of history.
Our next panel member is @NicoleMartens8, Head of Africa & Middle East at the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment @PRI_News, based in Johannesburg.
Today's final panel member is Zanele Zanele Mbuyisa, Director and Co-Founder of Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys in Johannesburg, a 100% Black-owned law firm with a collective knowledge and experience of 20 years in human rights litigation and media law.
Kabwe, described by The Guardian as the “world’s most toxic town”, is an example of a community devastated by MNC negligence, and a case study we will reference during our discussion. Generations of children have been poisoned by widespread contamination:
“…childhood Lead poisoning in Zambia’s Kabwe mining town is among the highest in the world, especially in children under the age of 3 years.”
- John Yabe 2015
The first question is to Zanele: "You’re representing the victims and you’ve met them on many occasions. How would you describe the predicament of the communities?"
Zanele: Kabwe is a poor community that has been suffering from lead contamination for decades. Pregnant women and children are affected by high lead levels from mine dumps in the community.
Zanele: The community is doing its best to provide a healthy living environment for their children but they cannot move from where they live.
"@MuleyaM, you lived in Kabwe as a child. What was your recollection and experience?"
Muleya: I grew up in Kabwe and nothing much has changed since my days growing up there. We had children attending my school who looked smaller than other children and whose educational outcomes were lower compared to other children.
"@DavidOlusoga, does watching this video and hearing about the situation surprise you?"
David: As a historian, when I read and watch abuses of multinational companies, I see the continuity of the British Empire. Empire was about companies built on the idea that there were two worlds - some exist under the writ of law and some other parts do.
David: Fundamental to understand that Empire was about the idea that in some parts of the world the law was real and in others the law was not real. That is important in understanding the conduct of multinational companies today.
This sad state of affairs raises many questions, and @RichardMeeran poses some of these to our panel of experts. Firstly: Was such conduct (a) considered acceptable by these companies? If so, why? (b) how was this allowed to happen?
David: Ideas of Empire were built over centuries and passed down generations. This common double-think was recently reflected in toppling of Edward Colston's statue. A philanthropist, concerned about the poor in Bristol, yet didn't care about young Africans placed on slave ships.
David: Race, criminality, ideology were all involved in this conduct. Race played a part in this because people had to be convinced that those being branded and abused were not human beings and they did not matter. The law was then used to strip the abused of their rights.
Zanele: Silicosis was known to be dangerous as early as 1912 but yet black workers were not given protective gear. Instead, a compensation scheme was created which resulted in white workers receiving better medical diagnosis and payouts than their fellow black workers.
Nicole Martens: One of the things that has happened recently is the evolution of the role of institutional investors. Human rights traditionally have not been codified as a result investors always thought of their role as maximising shareholder value.
Question 2: Was this lack of regard for fellow human beings just a thing of a colonial past or is it still ongoing?
Muleya: Colonial legacy is still with us and it was based on capitalistic instincts of making money and shipping it out. The conditions faced by the miners in Marikana where 34 striking miners were shot by South African Police provides parallels with the situation in the Kabwe
David: one of the things that was priced into empire was the idea that people back in England would not believe the things that were being done to local populations across the empire. When you add distance, race, empire and ideology, it makes it hard for people to believe.
Zanele: Corporations know what goes on in the places where they operate. So they defend themselves by hiring commercial firms to delay claims on procedural grounds
Zanele: Mining companies would rather pay lawyers to defend than acknowledge where things have gone wrong. Many of the victims may die while waiting for their claims to be heard.
Question 3: Do grand human rights pronouncements by businesses reflect a genuine commitment or are they just paying lip service?
Nicole: From the investor's perspective, their role is to investigate whether policies are being implemented. It's no longer good enough to simply have a policy about human rights, there is now a growing recognition for accountability to include implementing human rights.
Muleya: The regulatory environment is quite lenient to mining operations. Governments balance the public interest, whatever that means, with mining interests. The profit motive usually trumps people and the environment.
Question 4: Is the public in the Global North that interested in corporate mistreatment of communities in Africa?
David: There's an appetite for documentaries about history. We're far more interested in WWI than in current conflicts. TV has its own internal culture, and within that, ideas have developed which mitigate against coverage of these issues.
DO: People say television is about escapism, rather than confronting realities. I think this is changing in an inter-generational way. The age of unseriousness is coming to an end. Younger people are far more interested in these issues, more interconnected, and globally aware.
David: Young people feel profoundly different about this compared to their parents and grandparents. They go from disbelief to anger to activism. The job of journalism is to serve their readership, which is changing enormously.
Question 5: What is being/should be done by investors, governments, civil society and human rights lawyers to ensure ethical and responsible behaviour and legal accountability?
NM: @PRI_News requires annual reporting on ESG. The issue of human right reporting is integrated into that reporting framework. If you don't meet minimum mandatory reporting requirements, you are delisted. We recognise the world is in transition and it doesn't change overnight
Nicole: We work with investors on the transition to where we need to be. That is why it is interesting to see this movement around the criminalisation of ecocide. As a responsible investor, you should understand that and not just pay it lip service. You need to walk the walk.
Muleya: @AmnestySARO campaign and have over 10M supporters across the world, who carry out actions; letter writing, and interactions with NGOs, governments, and intergovernmental organisations. If there is enough people pressure, companies, as well as governments, will buckle.
Zanele: The bottom line is what is key for companies. If they have to shell out compensation that makes a big dent in their profits, they will change their actions. I don't think they care enough about social issues, or race, or even poisoning children, for them to change.
Thank you to everyone who attended this insightful webinar and contributed questions to our panel.
Thanks to our panel:
@AmnestySARO @MyleyaM
Zanele Mbuyisa

The webinar will be on-demand next week on YouTube: youtube.com/channel/UCmMQc…

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