Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record:
A Story of Asbestos Activism in South Africa 

by John Trimbur



Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record1 tells the story of the Asbestos Interest Group (AIG), a village-based network of asbestos activists in post-apartheid South Africa. The book is set in the Kuruman district, a former mining center on the Cape Asbestos Belt, now a landscape of retrenched mines and mills and derelict tailing dumps, where the ubiquitous presence of asbestos continues to cause deadly diseases long after the mines closed in the 1990s and the new democratic government banned asbestos in 2008. The book follows the AIG from its inception in 2001, documenting the organization’s efforts to raise local awareness of the dangers of asbestos; its grassroots research project to map sites of secondary asbestos contamination; its participation in the historic legal case against the mining house Gencor and its asbestos subsidiaries Gefco and Msauli; and its work helping ex-mineworkers fill out compensation claims with the state system and with the Asbestos Relief Trust that resulted from the out-of-court settlement with Gencor in 2003.


AIG educational poster explaining how women who washed mineworkers’ clothes were exposed to asbestos fibers.

The book is a personal one in the sense that it grew out of my involvement – and the involvement of other family members – with the AIG that sought to link asbestos activism across national borders and social locations, from metropolitan centers in the global north to remote rural villages on the periphery in the far south. In 2001, I accompanied a university-based research project led by Sophia Kisting, a longtime asbestos activist then at the Industrial Health and Research Group (IHRG) at the University of Cape Town; Simphiwe Mbuli, who worked at the IHRG before taking a faculty position at Peninsula Technicon in Cape Town; and two faculty members from Brown University in the U.S., the South African environmental historian Nancy Jacobs and Lundy Braun, from the department of pathology and laboratory medicine, who had a background in public health activism and who is also my wife. One of our daughters Lucia Trimbur was part of the student research team, working with the South African attorney Richard Spoor taking verbal testimonies from asbestos disease sufferers and surviving family members in the early stages of the Gencor case.

The 2001 visit of the university research team, which became known as the Asbestos Collaborative, converged with a wave of asbestos awareness and activism in the villages around Kuruman, prompted in large part by the 1998 National Asbestos Summit that was called by the post-apartheid South African government to assess the catastrophic effects of the asbestos industry and the tasks of rehabilitating the lethally contaminated environment and providing adequate medical care and compensation for asbestos-related disease sufferers. Sophia Kisting played a central role in organizing the Summit, making sure to include the voices of villagers from the retrenched asbestos mining districts and workers from urban asbestos manufacturing plants, to build grassroots participation into the Summit’s proceedings and projected agenda. The resulting upswing of consciousness about the dangers of asbestos, which had long been hidden from ordinary South Africans by the mining companies and the state, led to the formation of the AIG in late 2001. A year after its official founding in early 2002, the AIG had organized a network of over eighty village affiliates.


Stephen Kotoloane, founder of the Asbestos Interest Group, at a village meeting in Seoding, 2013.

Following the 2001 visit with the university-based Asbestos Collaborative, Lundy and I returned to Kuruman almost every year over the next fifteen years to work with the AIG on various initiatives, including a pamphlet in English, Setswana, and Afrikaans versions about asbestos and asbestos-related diseases, grassroots research workshops with AIG activists, and helping the AIG office develop the paper trails of organizational record keeping. The impetus to write Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record came about unwittingly, when I was engaged in this type of activist work in 2007, putting together a timeline of the AIG’s first decade as a basic document to include in grant applications and to use for publicity purposes. In retrospect, it now seems obvious that the central motive of the book – of not wanting the AIG’s work to be forgotten – was already actively present. A logical step from the timeline was a more fully fleshed-out history, to enter the AIG’s grassroots activism into the written record, where its meanings and legacy could be examined. In 2010, following discussions with AIG leaders Stephen Kotoloane and Addison Oepeng, my involvement with the AIG changed course, shifting from an activism that tried to connect my academic background in writing studies to the mission of the AIG and the villagers it represented to a scholarly research project that chronicled the history of asbestos activism in South Africa.


Addison Oepeng, at a village meeting in Seoding, 2013.

The book that resulted Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record pays particular attention to how the AIG navigated the bureaucratic paperwork of the mining companies, government agencies, the courts, the state workers compensation system, the medical world, civil society organizations, and so on. All sorts of documents appear in the book – work records, medical diagnoses, compensation claims, power of attorney forms, client questionnaires, legal affidavits, monthly AIG reports to donors, educational posters, household surveys, maps of secondary contamination, and more. The book is interested in how the AIG has been able (or, at times, not able) to move the interests of the black rural working classes from the margins of the world system through the bureaucratic mazeways of mainstream institutions in metropolitan centers. The storyline, that is, concerns how the AIG has been able (or not) to gain standing in public forums for villagers who had been silenced by white minority rule, to inscribe grassroots voices into the official records of deliberation and decision making.

The first part of Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record provides historical background on the Kuruman district and explores how the asbestos industry was able for nearly a century to avoid the paperwork of government regulation and impede the transnational circulation of knowledge about the dangers of asbestos. It also traces the emergence of asbestos activism within the wider anti-apartheid insurgency of the 1980s, detailing Barry Commoner’s visit to South Africa in 1983, the strike at the Penge asbestos mine in 1984, and the work of radical occupational health and safety professionals, such as the IHRG, with the independent trade union movement.

The IHRG did groundbreaking work investigating the health effects of asbestos in the workplace, working closely with the South African Municipal Workers Union, whose members were exposed to asbestos in Cape Town power stations, and the Construction and Allied Workers Union, which had organized asbestos cement plants in South Africa. The Transport and General Workers Union participated in Jonny Myer’s landmark 1985 study of dockworkers who handled asbestos. In the 1990s, the IHRG worked with the National Union of Mineworkers during the closing of the asbestos mines, conducting exit medical examinations and helping retrenched mineworkers apply for compensation from the state system. Sophia Kisting and Elizabeth Nolokwe of the IHRG secured funding from the British Trade Union Council to train health-care professionals to recognize and treat the asbestos-related diseases that had been misdiagnosed for years as tuberculosis.

One of the key features of the IHRG’s activism – and what was to become a major influence on the AIG – was its deep appreciation of participatory research and worker-generated knowledge. As Jonny Myers and others noted, collaboration with union stewards at the shop floor level produced new forms of semi-quantitative and qualitative data, based on workers’ lived experience, that were inaccessible to the state and industry’s primarily statistical research methods. Through the village meetings organized by the Asbestos Collaborative in 2001, Sophia Kisting and Simphiwe Mbuli supplied the connecting link between the IHRG’s emphasis on participatory workplace research and the forms of grassroots research being developed by the AIG, with the fulcrum of investigation shifting from the shop floor to the village.

AIG village affiliates, for example, carried out household surveys which showed widespread complaints about “chest ailments.” Though these surveys had a relatively small sample size and lacked the methodological design and diagnostic categories needed to enter the annals of mainstream epidemiology, they were important nonetheless at the local level as popular knowledge that helped villagers recognize the damaging pulmonary effects of a century of asbestos mining. On the other hand, the hand-drawn maps of secondary asbestos contamination, despite their humble appearances, acquired much greater mobility than the household surveys, circulating from remote rural villages on the Cape Asbestos Belt to the research design of Robert R. Jones’ government-sponsored study “Assessment of Environmental Contamination,” in which AIG activists participated as field workers, and the gallery exhibitions and art books by the renowned South African photographer David Goldblatt in his visual investigations of the consequences of asbestos mining.


AIG map of asbestos contamination in the village of Sedibeng.

As the trajectories of the maps indicate, one of the AIG’s great strengths was its ability to form linkages between grassroots and elite sectors. This was evident in the AIG’s early years, in its relations with the university-based Asbestos Collaborative and with Moffat Mission, which, during the early 2000s when Richard Aitken was director, provided the AIG with office space, tactical support, and material resources. In the Gencor case, an informal alliance between the AIG, Moffat, and the law firm Ntuli, Noble & Spoor supplied the motive force of a mass registration drive in which AIG activists served as community legal workers to sign up over four thousand villagers as claimants. When the Gencor case ended in 2003, the AIG, which had been a plaintiff in the legal proceedings and was the community signatory to the out of court settlement, worked closely with the Asbestos Relief Trust (ART), explaining the terms of the settlement, who was eligible for compensation, and what documents were needed to file a claim.


A meeting of the Asbestos Interest Group at Moffat Mission, c. 2002. Photograph by David Goldblatt.

The years immediately following the Gencor case were filled with great expectations on the part of villagers about the ART and the promise of restitution for the asbestos industry’s unlawful neglect of the health of its workers and of residents living in the former asbestos mining districts. (In a historic move, the Gencor settlement included claims from asbestos disease sufferers who had not worked on the mines but whose exposure was environmental.) Whenever Lundy and I visited the AIG office in Kuruman, we saw a constant stream of villagers, some coming from long distances, seeking information and advice about how to file a claim. We watched the AIG office staff develop an expert practical understanding of both the state compensation system and the ART, becoming, in effect, grassroots technicians of bureaucratic paperwork, with a database of Gencor work records that the ART digitized and connections to sympathetic contacts at the Chamber of Mines.

We also saw a tonal shift take place, as the majority of claimants were denied benefits for not meeting the criteria for compensation established by the ART, with only 30 per cent of the claims filed being certified by the ART’s medical board. While this figure seemed unfairly low to many villagers, it was almost exactly what actuaries predicted when the trust was formed. If anything, it was the ART’s honesty and transparency, its commitment to community outreach and to screening as widely as possible, to make sure eligible ex-mineworkers did not fall through the cracks, that were largely responsible for the seemingly low approval rate. The trust’s statistical calculations were not well understood, however, or were rejected by villagers on the grounds that the ART should pay puna kaledi or “sorry money” to any asbestos disease sufferer whether they had worked on a Gencor mine or not. Other villagers thought anyone who had registered as a claimant, by giving their name to the litigation, should be compensated whether or not they suffered from asbestos-related disease.

In any event, an opposition group called the Asbestos Kgatelopele Community (AKC) began to form around 2008. AKC members marched on the ART and AIG offices in Kuruman, making physical threats and circulating the rumor that claimants were not being paid because Richard Spoor had stolen the money set aside in the Gencor settlement. Ultimately, in 2015, legal charges brought by the AKC against the ART were thrown out for lack of evidence by the North Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg. Still, these were difficult times for the AIG, and the anger, dashed hopes, and feelings of betrayal mobilized by the AKC continued to simmer in the villages long after the judicial ruling, posing the greatest challenge the AIG has faced in its twenty-year history.

From its grassroots vantage point, the AIG recognized the petty motives and mercenary interests that activated the AKC’s leadership, while also acknowledging the poverty and desperation that drove villagers toward the AKC. The AIG’s day-to-day familiarity with the ART’s compensation system gave AIG activists a special understanding of how the Gencor settlement played out unevenly in the lives of villagers, improving the quality of life for the 30 per cent who received benefits from the ART while bypassing the remainder. At the AIG’s office in Kuruman, Stephen Kotoloane and Addison Oepeng saw at close hand the uses and limits of individual compensation, of how benefits are fully justified by the harm caused to individuals by the asbestos industry but also how such payment of damages for personal injury takes place after the fact and thereby cannot prevent the exposure of present and future generations to the dangers of asbestos.

Perhaps the clearest expression of the AIG’s grassroots perspective is its 2010 proposal for a Superfund/Asbestos Development Fund, with significant state investment to augment the ART (and the smaller Kgalagadi Relief Trust formed in 2006 from a settlement with Eternit) in order to provide increased compensation for all asbestos disease sufferers, expanded medical care and the establishment of research centers, and rehabilitation of asbestos contamination, with popular participation at all levels of decision making and activity. The AIG’s agenda, like the vision Sophia Kisting projected at the 1998 Asbestos Summit, recognizes that the South African asbestos industry left behind not just a medical and environmental crisis but a historical disaster calling for broad-based reparations and the social reconstruction of regions devastated by disease, unemployment, poverty, and a century of social neglect.

November 2, 2020


1 More information on Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record: A Textual History of Asbestos Activism in South Africa can be obtained from the Publisher’s website:



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