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Morley Nkosi

A new book scrutinises the labour structure of the South African mining industry over the last 350 years.

David Philip Publishers, 2011

Some things do not change. For 350 years from 1657 to today the labour structure in South Africa has remained substantially the same. The origin of this ‘structure’, which is found in all South Africa’s industries, can be traced back to the mining industry. In this well-researched and well-documented book, Morley Nkosi shows how from the colonial past to this day successive regimes protected this labour structure and assured its longevity and perhaps perpetuity.

The essential features of this structure were laid out in the gold mines. The forced labour system, the brutal and violent suppression and regimentation of African mine labour, job classification according to race and colour, and the system of rewards and punishment - all of which Nkosi documents in minute detail - were meticulously built into the labour system in the mining industry and then replicated in the other industries. Nkosi quotes from Sampie Terreblanche, ‘A History of Inequality in South Africa 1652-2002’, that South Africa's history over the past 350 years has been ‘exceptionally violent’.

The violent suppression of African labour had not gone unnoticed, however. In 1927, the Dutch Reformed Church with the support of the Carnegie Corporation in New York undertook research into this problem. The findings of this research resulted in a publication in 1932 in Stellenbosch called ‘The Poor White Problem in South Africa: Report of the Carnegie Commission’. The report touched the hearts of a humanitarian minority, but it failed to change the system.

Apart from the labour structure, which forms the core of the book, Nkosi also analyzes the critical role played by South Africa's gold in the international financial system based on the gold standard. ‘The labour structure in the gold mines of South Africa,’ he writes, ‘had to be retained, maintained and buttressed in the interest of the world’s financial system, in which the City of London was the centre.’

How much of this has changed since the end of apartheid? The author does not go into this in detail since this is a book based on his Ph.D. thesis covering a particular historical period. The brutality of the apartheid period is probably not as severe now as before, but the ‘structure’ remains intact. Says Nkosi, ‘The consequent inequalities (born during the apartheid period) are evident in where and how South Africans are born, raised, educated, work, save, retire, enjoy themselves and die.’ That structure endures in its essentials.

Finance capital continues to rule South Africa through the IMF and neoliberal ideologies that come with donor aid and corporate capital. Nkosi is critical of the abandonment of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) brought out by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1994. Its preface says that the ‘document is the result of many months of consultation within the ANC, its Alliance partners and other mass organisations in the wider civil society’ and that ‘[t]he process now underway is that of developing the detailed policy and legislative programme necessary to implement the RDP.’

The RDP, however, was abandoned. It gave way to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic strategy. ‘When some economists began to interrogate this strategy, they were severely taken to task and summarily dismissed.’ GEAR, says Nkosi, ended up leading to a dead end 15 years into the new democratic dispensation. ‘The costs of this failure are almost incalculable.’ Nkosi is more hopeful of the ‘The New Growth Path’, the framework announced in June 2009, but he does not give reasons for his optimism.

The book is an excellent addition to the vast literature that has emerged since independence on the economic history of South Africa. Given his scholarly and meticulous approach to research, Nkosi might now turn his attention to the contemporary, post-apartheid, period. Finance capital is no longer what it used to be 100 years ago. It has degenerated into a new phase of the dominance of speculative over productive capital. In recent years, for example, derivatives are having a large negative impact on South African mining and industrial sectors, including the losses at a number of gold mines that hedged their risk exposures on, ironically, the price of gold.

Nkosi might also explore the impact of the outrageously generous concessions that sub-Saharan African governments have been making to mining companies, so that even at the peak of commodity prices in 2007, relatively small tax revenues from the export sector accrued to Africa. Is this the case with South Africa too? Also, what is the impact of the global recession on the mining sector in South Africa, especially on the employment and welfare of workers? The other area worth exploring is the impact of the entry of China and India on the South African mining industry and the structure of labour and labour unions. These are questions for the present and the future, but with the hindsight knowledge of how the mining industry developed in South Africa from its early days to the present times, Morley Nkosi is best placed to answer some of the more recent challenges facing South Africa and the continent in our own times.


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