Zambia Takes Anglo American to Court
A landmark class-action lawsuit in South Africa could set a precedent for holding multinational corporations responsible for environmental damages.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Church groups at war in Ethiopia, Pope Francis visits the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, and Nigeria and South Africa seek to expand their international sporting influence.
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Zambia’s Unprecedented Lawsuit
Anglo American, one of the world’s largest mining companies, has been accused of turning a “blind eye” to decades of lead poisoning suffered by hundreds of thousands of people living near a Zambian mine that it held a stake in for nearly 50 years, according to a landmark case in the Johannesburg branch of South Africa’s High Court.
The lawsuit alleges that the British firm continued to profit from the extraction and smelting of lead from the mine in Kabwe, Zambia, without ensuring that proper safety standards were met, even when it knew the great harm being caused.
A hearing that concluded on Jan. 31 will decide whether a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of as many as 140,000 women and children can proceed. The lawsuit was filed in Johannesburg because Anglo American was headquartered there when it held a majority stake in the lead mine in Kabwe from 1925 until 1974, when it was nationalized by the Zambian government—before eventually being closed in 1994.
Blood lead levels in children living in Kabwe are many times higher than the poisoning standard amount of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter adopted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although the CDC and the World Health Organization advise that there is no safe level of lead, many children tested in Kabwe had levels at more than 45 micrograms, causing heart, brain, and liver damage. Numerous investigations since 1971, when eight children died of suspected lead poisoning, have found alarmingly high levels of lead in local children.
Lawyers based in the United Kingdom and South Africa are demanding compensation and an environmental cleanup. If successful, it could set a precedent as one of the largest class-action lawsuits for historical damages caused by extractive corporations that will be heard in an African court, as opposed to courts in the U.K., the Netherlands, the United States, or France, where companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil, and Total are (or have been) based.
“It is quite clear that generally for an African community to really get recourse, they need to follow where the company’s money is, and the money is so often not in the global south,” said Ariella Scher, an attorney and the head of the business and human rights program at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies in Johannesburg. What makes the case significant, she said, is the provisions that South African law allows in terms of class-action litigation, compared with more limited avenues in Zambia, and the potential to hold large corporations accountable within Africa.
Anglo American denies liability, arguing that it provided “technical services” but never “owned or operated” the mine. Instead, Anglo American places the blame on the Zambian government through the state-owned Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines and other minority stakeholders, which it says acknowledged “responsibility for all historic liabilities” following nationalization.
Anglo American signed up to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which it heavily promotes as part of its corporate responsibility literature. U.N. experts have argued through their intervention that by opposing the class-action suit, Anglo American is behaving “contrary” to its “professed commitments” on human rights.
Zambian authorities continue to emphasize metals extraction as a key driver of economic growth—accounting for more than 40 percent of government revenue—despite concerns around the lack of benefits it has offered residents thus far. More than half of the country’s population lives in poverty.
At last year’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema announced that California-based KoBold Metals, an exploration firm backed by billionaires Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, would invest $150 million to develop a new copper mine in Zambia. Zambia is Africa’s second-largest producer of copper—a metal critical to the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
It’s part of the Biden administration’s efforts to wrest economic influence from Beijing through the use of private U.S. companies.
The deal is set to close by the first quarter of this year. China is currently Zambia’s largest infrastructure creditor and has a heavy presence in the country. Hichilema is also pursuing new copper mine deals with Chinese firms.
The push to capitalize on renewable energy demands will likely cause similar pollution problems for Zambians. As Cobus van Staden wrote in Foreign Policy last June, the green energy revolution threatens to repeat “a trail of environmental degradation, human rights violations, and semipermanent underdevelopment all across the developing world” because it uses the same destructive extraction methods.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Feb. 8: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visits Sudan.
Zimbabwean Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube and Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gov. John Mangudya discuss the country’s economic outlook at a meeting of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries in Harare.
Sunday, Feb. 5, to Sunday, Feb. 19: Molly Phee, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, visits South Africa, Nigeria, and Ethiopia.
Thursday, Feb. 9: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a state of the nation address.
The U.N. Security Council meets to adopt a resolution related to Sudan sanctions.
Friday, Feb. 10: Rwanda releases inflation figures for January.
What We’re Watching
Ethiopia church attack. Three people were reportedly killed on Saturday in an attack on a church in southern Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox-affiliated Tewahedo Media Center reports that Oromia special forces attacked the church in Shashamene, about 150 miles south of Addis Ababa. The incident could be linked to tensions between the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and a splinter church group created in Oromia.
The Holy Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church said the breakaway bishops are forcibly invading its pontificates and offices with the help of government forces. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed called for the rivals to engage in dialogue and said both sides had their “own truths,” which the Synod lambasted for appearing to recognize the “illegitimate group.”
While the peace deal between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels is holding, security is deteriorating elsewhere in the country. The Oromo Liberation Army is accused of targeting Amharas who live in Oromia and of intensifying other local grievances in the area. According to local authorities, more than 10,000 people in Oromia were displaced in the first half of December 2022 alone.
Pope Francis visit. Accompanied by the leaders of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, Pope Francis traveled last week to South Sudan to urge its leaders to end violence in the country. More than 400,000 people have been killed since independence nearly 12 years ago. “Future generations will either venerate your names or cancel their memory, based on what you now do,” he said in a speech in the capital of Juba.
Earlier, while in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Francis condemned corruption and the “economic colonialism” of the country, to a rapturous crowd. However, he did not mention abuses committed by the Catholic Church, despite demonstrators in Congo’s capital of Kinshasa demanding that he meet with those sexually abused by the clergy. Francis is the first pontiff to visit the country since John Paul II in 1985, when it was known as Zaire.
On a continent where Catholicism is growing, Pope Francis’s visit attracted millions of worshippers and is significant for the Catholic Church as Europe’s Catholic population declines.
Malawi anti-graft chief targeted. Malawi suspended the head of its anti-corruption bureau, Martha Chizuma, last Thursday over a leaked audiotape in which she suggested that high-ranking officials were obstructing her fight against corruption. (She was reinstated on Monday by a Malawi high court.) It follows an incident in December, when Chizuma was arrested just days after her office charged Malawian Vice President Saulos Chilima with taking a $280,000 bribe from a British businessman to help obtain state contracts. The attempts to remove Chizuma from office threaten to undermine President Lazarus Chakwera’s government and its pledge to root out corruption, amid bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
Chad-Israel ties. Chadian President Mahamat Déby has opened the country’s first embassy in metropolitan Tel Aviv. Relations between Israel and Chad were broken in 1972, when many African nations cut diplomatic ties with Israel in solidarity with Palestinians; the ties resumed in 2019. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to office in December, has sought to broaden ties with Arab and Muslim-majority countries despite violent clashes with Palestinians.
Déby also met with David Barnea, the head of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, signaling that the outreach is about broader security cooperation. Déby, who was not democratically elected, is facing public calls for a speedy transition to democracy amid widespread insecurity across the Sahel.
This Week in Sports
South African soccer sponsorship. South Africa’s tourism agency is pursuing a 1 billion rand (about $57 million) deal to sponsor the English soccer club Tottenham Hotspur; it has been granted conditional approval, the board confirmed in a news briefing on Thursday. However, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office plans to oppose it, Bloomberg reports.
“We do not think spending so much money in the manner that is being suggested will be justified,” said Vincent Magwenya, a spokesperson for Ramaphosa. Details of the three-year agreement were first revealed in the Daily Maverick through leaked documents. South Africa’s sports committees objected to the deal, suggesting that such a large sum should be spent on local sports.
The acting head of the tourism agency, Themba Khumalo, defended the decision, arguing that the department’s budget was aimed at promoting South Africa as a tourist destination to foreigners. South Africa is not the only African country looking to sponsor English clubs. Rwanda inked a $12 million annual sponsorship of Arsenal in 2018, emblazoning “Visit Rwanda” on team jerseys. That deal was heavily condemned as an attempt at “sportswashing” over widespread reports of abuse under Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s leadership.
Sheffield United’s Nigerian takeover. Nigerian technology billionaire Dozy Mmobuosi is in the final stages of buying English club Sheffield United for 90 million pounds (about $108 million). The club’s current owner, Abdullah bin Musaid Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, has been struggling to maintain the funding required to keep the club going, and Mmobuosi’s takeover could help secure the club’s future. But the buyout will first have to pass scrutiny from the English Football League after questions were raised over his finances.
Mmobuosi’s company Tingo Mobile is worth $7.6 billion. The agri-fintech platform provides farmers with weather forecasts, information on markets, and the ability to make digital payments. That the takeover could bring some benefits to Nigerian sports is possible; last year, Mmobuosi funded a Super Cup tournament for clubs in the Nigeria Professional Football League.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Britain Is Much Worse Off Than It Understands by Simon Tilford
• How a Chinese Spy Balloon Blew Up a Key U.S. Diplomatic Trip by James Palmer
• Europe Doesn’t Need the United States Anymore by Rajan Menon and Daniel R. DePetris
What We’re Reading
South Africa’s Chinese venture. A proposed special economic zone backed by Chinese conglomerates in South Africa’s northeastern Limpopo province is facing legal challenges, Aisha Abdool Karim details in AmaBhungane. The zone, which will mainly host metals manufacturing plants, will have a dedicated coal-fired power station and will require around 123 billion liters of water per year in an area that is water-starved and biodiverse.
NGOs that have filed a court application to have the project’s approval reevaluated argue that over the industrial plant’s 30-year lifespan, it would require 10 percent of South Africa’s carbon budget, “making the project’s climate impacts alone absolutely dire. The impact on scarce water resources will be comparably disastrous.”
Cameroon’s exploited child refugees. Children displaced by the Cameroonian government’s conflict with Anglophone separatists are being exploited as cheap labor, maltreated, or sexually abused by host families, Kiven Brenda reports in HumAngle. “Their hosts take advantage of the fact that they are desperate and take them for granted. After exploiting them for years, some were sent away and had to sleep on the street,” one aid worker told Brenda. The conflict has displaced more than 620,000 people, and the United Nations estimates that at least 200,000 displaced children cannot access education.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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