This paper examines citizen mobilisation and activism in relation to asbestos disease and litigation. Although the litigation of Cape plc, a British company mining asbestos in South Africa, has been seen as a success story in which local activists worked alongside international lawyers and environmental campaigners to force Cape plc to pay compensation to 7,500 former employees with asbestos-related diseases, many claimants experienced this case as a bitter defeat.
The paper explores these divergent interpretations of the same litigation case, focusing on the experiences of two towns in the Northern Cape, South Africa, namely Prieska and Griquatown and on the claimants’ perspectives. The literature of social movements, political mobilisation, ethnic identity and millenarian movements is drawn upon in relation to the everyday economic and cultural experiences of people in these Northern Cape towns.
In contrasting the relative isolation experienced by Griquatown residents with the networking and mobilisation process taking place in Prieska, the paper argues that this isolation undermines citizens’ ability to frame asbestos disease litigation as an international victory and as a case of justice being done. Instead claimants interpret their experiences in terms of local factors, including poverty, the history of asbestos payment, religious beliefs and, ultimately, in an idiom that corresponds with their ethnic identity.
The paper thus suggests that neither theories of social mobilisation nor millenarian movements alone can adequately explain people’s emic interpretations of international litigation and political mobilisation. Rather, it is the linkages between these literatures, informed by an understanding of local ethnic identity, which provides a framework for understanding social behaviour.