Single plaintiffs are often disproportionately vulnerable in relation to defendants with deep pockets and institutional coordination. Class actions condense and manage the matter under dispute; they provide a tool for effective, fair resolution.
Class action litigation has been available in South Africa since the Constitution was introduced in 1996. However, no legislative regime exists to govern class action. Both the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal have shaped class action procedure and developed its tradition through a limited number of cases; overall, though, this is a young, ever-evolving legal mechanism.
RSI has been at the forefront of much of the procedural aspect of South African class action litigation over the past two decades. By partnering with and learning from top international class action firms it has come to understand the strategies that underpin such litigation – and, crucially, it has led some of the country’s most significant settlement negotiations to date. In this arena, as in all its work, the firm is committed to honouring the interests of many diverse groups and seeking swift, comprehensive justice for its clients.
RSI acted as lead attorneys in the landmark silicosis class action against the South African gold mining industry. The scale of this litigation is unprecedented in South Africa: the largest ever undertaken, it resulted in a R5 billion settlement for a broad class of gold mine workers. Now, building on this success, RSI is using a similar approach with litigation in the coal sector for workers suffering from coal workers’ lung disease. The firm is also engaged in a group action against Sasol related to six of the company’s mines spanning the period 1985 to the present.
The firm is also, in partnership with LHL Attorneys, pursuing consumer rights-based class actions against Tiger Brands on behalf of victims of the deadly 2017 listeriosis outbreak, and in partnership with RH Lawyers Inc against Johnson & Johnson, Coloplast and various other associated manufacturers and distributors of defective pelvic mesh devices.
In August 2023, we launched an application for certification of a class action against South32, BHP Billiton and Seriti Power, seeking compensation for sick miners and the families of workers who died due to coal mine dust lung disease in the form of pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Applications for certifications against Anglo, Glencore and Exxaro are to follow. More information on the development of the case is accessible here.
In the past two decades this arm of our practice has focused largely on supporting mineworkers. Our commitment to righting historical and contemporary injustices in the mining sector has led to pioneering litigation that has established RSI as a class action specialist. This is a critical service. Hundreds of thousands of people have worked tirelessly on the country’s mines, amassing tremendous wealth for large corporations at the expense of their own health, safety and dignity.
We spearheaded the historic silicosis class action, negotiating a settlement previously unheard of in South Africa: a R5 billion guaranteed amount to be paid by the gold industry over the next decade to mineworkers who were left debilitatingly ill by silicosis and to their families. The settlement established a step towards recognising the suffering of mineworkers and their dependents, acknowledging that it could never fully rectify the harm that they have suffered. It also created a precedent by holding mining firms accountable for their role in this harm.
More recently we are initiating class action proceedings on behalf of coal mine workers who contracted coal workers' pneumoconiosis (commonly known as black lung disease).
Our commitment to prioritising workers’ rights extends to the policymaking and legislative spheres. RSI has made policy submissions to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Employment and Labour on, among other issues, amendments to the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, No 130 of 1993 and the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act 78 of 1973. We also advise the National Institute for Occupational Health and offer regular training on these aspects. Similar services are offered to trade unions.
Clients who benefit from our high quality advisory services and litigation support regarding workers’ rights include individual workers from a variety of sectors, trade unions, employers and the State.
Land is at the centre of daily disputes across South Africa. Clashes involving traditional communities, customary authorities, private landowners, unauthorised land occupants, private businesses, government regulators, developers, bureaucrats, political and civil society organisations are common. Often, these confrontations are driven by a lack of clarity about what the law requires and where the parties’ respective rights overlap. Each sphere develops its own siloed approach to land and natural resources, making even minor disputes difficult to solve.
RSI’s expertise is underpinned not just by a deep understanding of multiple areas of law, but by our commitment to long-term client relationships. Some of these relationships stretch over a decade or more and, during that time, we learn every aspect of the difficulties clients want the law to resolve. We immerse ourselves in understanding how best to communicate their priorities. We grapple alongside them with the challenges involved both in resolving legal disputes and in implementing the rights reflected in various pieces of legislation. We assist in structuring legal entities, provide conveyancing services, establish mechanisms to protect democratic processes and offer financial accountability oversight.
This expertise has been honed since the dawn of South Africa’s democratic land regime. It has allowed RSI to work with various entities, developing relationships that allow greater flexibility in facing novel issues. We engage with lawmakers at the highest level as well as negotiating and facilitating the implementation of compensation and relocation agreements between communities and companies. We have helped state agencies to administer their programmes; engaged extensively in customary processes and disputes; and collaborated with civil society and advocacy groups. The firm is proficient in complex dispute resolution, including high-stakes mediation and arbitration. Our practice has litigation experience at all levels of the court system, across the country, and in a wide array of non-judicial forums.
Big corporations continue to acquire huge profits off the back of corner-cutting, negligence and even deliberate wrongdoing. Many consumers are unaware that their rights have even been infringed, or that they have valid recourse. These factors perpetuate the cycle of the violation of consumer rights. Consumers are then forced to bear the heavy costs of the infringement of their rights.
RSI believes corporations should be held liable for transgressions of consumers’ rights. A powerful mechanism to achieve this is by instituting class action proceedings.
Two of RSI’s most notable cases as of 2022 are the listeriosis class action and the recently issued transvaginal mesh class action. These centre on seeking redress for victims of corporate negligence and misdeeds – and on forcing corporations to consider the rights and plights of South African consumers, improving standards and effecting change in the mindset of big business.
The listeriosis class action stems from South Africa’s 2017/18 listeriosis outbreak, the largest of its kind ever recorded in the country. Tiger Brands’ (Enterprise) ready-to-eat meat products such as polony were infected with the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium; hundreds of consumers became seriously ill and more than 200 people died. RSI, with LHL Attorneys, has been litigating against Tiger Brands since 2018.
RSI and RH Lawyers Inc have launched a class action against the manufacturers of pelvic mesh devices that have left scores of women with excruciating pain, infection, nerve damage and other debilitating symptoms. Patients were not warned of the potential risks.