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South African miners are digging up the ghosts of Apartheid. With the blessing of the nation's highest court, lawyers recently filed a class-action lawsuit against three of the country's biggest gold mining companies. They're suing on behalf of thousands of miners who say they're now sick because of deplorable working conditions during the Apartheid Era.

Anders Kelto reports that the suit could ultimately cost the companies billions.

ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: In South Africa's rural Eastern Cape Province, thatch-roof huts line the dirt roads that wind through rolling green hills. Children in uniforms play outside of an elementary school. Inside, dozens of men are packed into a small classroom.

Ziyanda Manjati, a paralegal, flips through a stack of papers and asks the men questions about their health.

ZIYANDA MANJATI: (Foreign language spoken)

KELTO: Manjati is part of a legal team that is scouring the South African countryside, trying to find the tens of thousands of men who poured into the country's gold mines during Apartheid.

Siponono Phahlane is 59, and says he began mining in 1973. He says the conditions at his mine near Ellis Rand were terrible.

SIPONONO PHAHLANE: (Through translator) We lived in a hostel 100 yards from the entrance. We wore the same uniform and the same boots for six months.

KELTO: He says his white bosses would often send black workers into the mines in extremely unsafe conditions.

PHAHLANE: (Through translator) They would blast and blast and then just send us in, without waiting 15 minutes. There was dust everywhere. We weren't even given masks.

KELTO: After two decades of this kind of work, Phahlane got sick. He had trouble breathing. He was eventually diagnosed with silicosis, which causes shortness of breath and can lead to scarring in the lungs and a higher risk of tuberculosis. Today, he can't walk more than a few yards without stopping and he coughs up blood.

PHAHLANE: (Through translator) It feels like I have stones in my lungs. And the doctors say it won't get better.

KELTO: South Africa's vast riches were built on the backs of poor black workers like Phahlane, men who toiled underground for years, making almost no money. Many fell ill or died. But under South African law, they were never allowed to sue their employers, even after Apartheid ended. Then, last year, the country's highest court made a monumental ruling. They said sick miners could sue in civil courts.

RICHARD SPOOR: There is no precedent. We really are working where no one has gone before.

KELTO: That's attorney Richard Spoor, who brought that historic case to court. Now he's filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 13,000 sick miners. Spoor says the scale of damage done is hard to comprehend.

SPOOR: We literally are talking about tens of thousands of people who've become sick or who have died as a result of this disaster - the biggest and longest-running industrial disaster in human history.

KELTO: Experts say the cases will probably end in a settlement. Billions of dollars could be at stake. But figuring out who should pay is difficult. That's because companies have restructured a lot since the end of Apartheid. Spoor says white-owned businesses - the ones that exploited black workers during Apartheid - have sold or given away many assets to black-owned businesses, as part of South Africa's black economic empowerment scheme.

But there's a bitter irony: black South African companies may now literally have to pay for the crimes of Apartheid. Companies implicated in the lawsuit declined to comment.

MANJATI: (Foreign language spoken)

PHAHLANE: (Foreign language spoken)

MANJATI: (Foreign language spoken)

KELTO: Back at the school, Siponono Phahlane, who suffers from silicosis, says he had no idea how much money mining companies were making during Apartheid.

PHAHLANE: (Through translator) I didn't know it at the time because it was hidden. But now I can see that these companies were making huge sums of money.

KELTO: He and his family live in extreme poverty. He says he's not hoping to get rich from the lawsuit. He just wants enough money to pay his medical bills and survive. But more than anything, he just wants his voice to be heard.

For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto.

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