Academic journal article African Studies Review

Asbestos Blues: Labour, Capital, Physicians, and the State in South Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Asbestos Blues: Labour, Capital, Physicians, and the State in South Africa

Article excerpt

HEALTH AND DISEASE Jock McCulloch., Asbestos Blues: Labour, Capital, Physicians, and the State in South Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. 252 pp. Map. Photographs. Tables. Bibliography. Index. $49. 95. Cloth. $22. 95. Paper.

For much of the twentieth century, South Africa was a major producer of asbestos, especially of crocidolite and amosite, which are found in few other regions of the world. Because the mining, milling, and manufacture of asbestos were almost completely unregulated, South Africans who were exposed either in the work setting or through contamination of the environment are now plagued by a largely invisible epidemic of asbestos-related diseases. In Asbestos Blues: Labour, Capital, Physicians, and the State in South Africa, the Australian historian Jock McCulloch makes an important and timely contribution to uncovering the roots of this epidemic.

After major expansions during both world wars, the asbestos industry went into an abrupt decline worldwide in the mid-1970s as the health hazards of asbestos were made public in lawsuits filed in the U. S. and Europe. However, the asbestos industry was able to survive in South Africa until 2000 by establishing new markets in the Middle East, India, and Japan. As McCulloch argues, the survival of the industry in South Africa can be understood only in the context of South African segregationist policies. Key aspects of this context discussed in Asbestos Blues are land policies, high labor turnover, migrant labor, high mortality of Africans, and systematic practices of sending sick workers home to die, as well as collusion among industry, scientists, and the state to suppress scientific knowledge about the health risk of asbestos.

While numerous exposés of the global asbestos industry have been published, McCulloch's book is the first to focus on South Africa. He makes a compelling case that asbestos mining was largely an informal system of production in South Africa until the 1950s and that certain aspects of the production process remained so even into the later decades of the twentieth century. Small mining sites with primarily African labor were controlled by individual white overseers, called tributors, a distinctly different model of mining from that of other industries. Fiber obtained from tributors was then sold to multinational companies, most of them British-owned. African men, women, and children worked under appalling conditions, without service contracts, medical care, housing rations, or any governmental regulation of exposure. …

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