Professor Jock McCulloch, who died from asbestos cancer (mesothelioma) on 18 January this year, not only distinguished himself with his research on the impact and machinations of the asbestos industry, but was also “a great friend of the people and especially the workers of South Africa”.

As such, it is incumbent on those who learned from him and know the suffering of workers to continue his work, said Dr Sophia Kisting, executive director of the National Institute for Occupational Health and recipient of UCT’s President of Convocation Medal for 2017.

She was speaking at a seminar and exhibition held in McCulloch’s honour in the Wolfson Pavilion at the university’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine on 17 May.

McCulloch was an Emeritus Professor of History in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, Melbourne, Australia. He authored and co-authored four books on the human cost of the global asbestos trade.

It is believed that the asbestos-related disease from which he died was the result of his exposure to blue asbestos in South Africa during the mid-1990s. He was in the country at the time to research his book, South Africa’s Gold Mines and the Politics of Silicosis. McCulloch also wrote Asbestos: Its Human Cost; Asbestos Blues: Labour, Capital, Physicians and the State in South Africa; and, with co-author Geoffrey Tweedale, Defending the Indefensible.

But, said Kisting, McCulloch’s knowledge of South Africa pre-dated his research into the mines and asbestos.

“Jock’s PhD thesis was on Frantz Fanon, who was a medical doctor from Martinique in the West Indies who specialised in psychiatry in France and then worked in Algeria during the Algerian liberation war against French occupation,” she said.

“Fanon’s books Black Skin White Masks and Wretched of the Earth are sources of great analysis and intellectual inspiration of the human condition. They inspire students now and sustained many of us during the dark days of apartheid.

“This explains so much to me about Jock’s deep understanding of the South African psyche, the social and political landscape shaped by colonialism, legalised racial segregation and enforced inequality.”

Historic settlement

The tribute to McCulloch, said Kisting, provided an appropriate opportunity to talk about the historic class action settlement agreement that was reached in Johannesburg on 3 May between six South African mining houses and lawyers representing workers suffering from silicosis and tuberculosis (TB).

She thanked lawyers Richard Spoor and Charles Abrahams and their teams, and national director of the Legal Resources Centre Janet Love, for their work leading up to the settlement. She also acknowledged late community leader Stephen Kotoloane of Gamopedi village near Kuruman in the Northern Cape. He was the chairperson of the Asbestos Interest Group and worked tirelessly to share information with villagers about how to protect themselves from asbestos exposure.

The inclusion of TB in the recent agreement – as argued for by “son of Bishop Lavis on the Cape Flats” Abrahams (who was among those in the audience) – is additionally significant, she said, reiterating, however, that the settlement is only one part of the process.

“The most important step forward will be to get the money into the hands of mineworkers and their families,” said Kisting. “That will require determination, courage and an inclusive approach where we need to live the words of one of the great leaders of Africa, Amilcar Cabral, who said, ‘Tell no lies and claim no easy victories’.

“Should South Africans fail to get the money to the workers in South and southern Africa who history has disadvantaged in such a cruel manner, history will certainly not absolve us.”

“The most important step forward will be to get the money into the hands of mineworkers and their families.”

Indeed, the asbestos battle is by no means over. Kisting also reminded the audience that most women and children who work in asbestos mines are not entitled to compensation because they cannot prove that they are engaged in risk work.

“There is currently no compensation for environmental mesothelioma. Given that asbestos is the only known cause of this deadly cancer, all cases of mesothelioma should be considered for compensation. This is the quest for social justice ahead of us,” she said.

The exhibition underscored McCulloch’s insistence on the global asbestos ban and achieving environmental justice for workers and communities.

Continue their work

Kisting expressed her gratitude to McCulloch and “other good men and women” who have shared their research and knowledge to help create a “gentler, more just and equal world of work and society”. It’s crucial, she said, that their colleagues and future generations continue the work in a transparent, inclusive manner with the shared purpose of protecting the human rights of every man and woman at work and at home.

“Jock has left us with a gift of immense proportions,” said Kisting. “The reason for the existence of a university is, in part, to create and share knowledge in an accessible and equitable manner. Who better to emulate than those, like Jock, who lived for the ideal that our common humanity can be strengthened through shining a spotlight on toxic substances that harm workers’ health and safety?

“The key to ridding the world of asbestos requires international effort against a ruthless industry.”

“What then do we do with the legacy of Jock McCulloch as it pertains to the historic documentation of a greater truth?

“We need to work to change the way the history is recorded and shine a spotlight on the conditions under which workers have to work to fulfil the profit motive. We need to continue the work of Jock and others to bring justice to those already suffering from asbestos- and silica-related diseases, and TB. We need to recognise, as Jock did, that the key to ridding the world of asbestos requires international effort against a ruthless industry.”

The tribute was supported by an exhibition that presented some of McCulloch and his colleaguesʼ work. It underscored McCulloch’s mantra about the global asbestos ban and achieving environmental justice for workers and communities, which is as follows: “It is an important and ongoing struggle. Because some gains have been made, that does not mean those gains will endure.”

The event also provided Professor Mohamed Jeebhay, head of the Occupational Medicine Division, with the opportunity to congratulate Kisting for being awarded the President of Convocation Medal, on behalf of his department.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.