‘Through No Fault of Your Own’: Asbestos Diseases in South Africa and the UK

‘Through No Fault of Your Own’: Asbestos Diseases in South Africa and the UK

This paper explores people’s experience of asbestos-related diseases in relation to medicine, identity and gender. The paper adopts a comparative approach, examining the experiences of impoverished former asbestos mine workers in South Africa and working class factory workers and laggers in the United Kingdom (UK). These two areas are connected through the activities of Cape plc, a company that dealt with asbestos for about a hundred years, mining in the Northern Cape of South Africa and manufacturing and processing in Barking, in the UK.

As indicated in the title, these industrial diseases are not contracted through worker negligence, but rather because of governments’ and managements’ framing of risk and the implementation of safety measures. The first part of the paper therefore contrasts authoritative and emic values through the examination of governmental recognition of risk and people’s own understandings of danger. The second part of the paper examines gendered and identity issues, focusing on how men’s masculinity is both undermined and bolstered through their involvement with asbestos production, while women’s identity is primarily vested in their household and primary caretaker role. Throughout the paper, a comparative anthropological approach focuses on the similarities of ‘meaning’ and subjective interpretations – as contrasted with the country specific medical, legal and political categorisations of disease with which these people regularly engage – highlighting how people experience, interpret and respond to asbestos-related diseases. Using an ‘effects made by gender approach’, the paper also examines how asbestos diseases intersect with identity, leading people to emphasise conventional gender roles.

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