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Unbundling the battle between foreign mining companies and indigenous black rural South Africans
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In recent years, South Africa has witnessed a rapid expansion of mining in mineral-rich rural areas of the former apartheid Bantustans or homelands that are vulnerable to mining land grabs. Worryingly, there are intensive and wide-ranging “cold wars” going on in these areas that do not ordinarily get much prominent coverage by the mass media. These battles, hostilities or feuds are between the indigenous black rural folks and “lily-white owned” foreign mining companies.  In many ways the battles resemble the biblical battle between Goliath, the Philistine and David, the Israelite. 

This analogy came to my mind as I listened to the delegates from mining-affected communities relaying their struggles during the recent pro-poor land reform conference held in Cape Town on 9-11 September.  The conference was organised and hosted by the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD). ARD is a coalition of rural communities and organisations that seeks “to amplify rural voices and defend rural citizens’ rights”.

In this article I first look at the root causes of these running battles between the rural folks and mining companies. Then I attempt to dispel the misguided argument that organisations such as ARD, Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA) and Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa (MEJCON-SA) and university institutes such as the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) are, by siding with the rural folks, irrefutably pursuing a rural populist agenda.

I explain that without mobilising their own agency and without the support of these institutes, rural folks simply do not have a winnable chance against the mighty mining industry. Then I look at the ramifications and/or consequences of these battles. I explain that these proxy wars work in favour of the mining industry and to the detriment of the rural folks. In addition to my personal observations, I make reference to the deliberations that occurred at the conference in Cape Town.  I conclude by asking and attempting to answer the following questions: Why kid-cloves for mining? Can mining co-exist with communities? Are there no alternatives? Will David prevail over Goliath?

Unbundling the battle 

Questions have been raised about what is at stake in these on-going battles between the mining companies and the rural folks. Rural folks lay claim to the land as rightfully theirs. But to them, as the conference in Cape Town was told, land is not just a piece of ground. It goes with the minerals underneath it. It is intractably linked to their customs, spiritual beliefs and traditions. It is their inheritance.  It is their source of livelihood and of their health as individuals and as communities. They are opposed to rampant land-grapping by the mining industry.

Mining companies are hungry for mineral-rich lands. They want to mine their precious commodities, minerals. Without abundant minerals they can’t make profits and deliver good dividends or returns to their shareholders. And without access to these minerals their local economic power and by extension political power, will be eroded or will dwindle. They blame communities for jeopardising socio-economic development in their areas. On the contrary, the rural folks accuse mining companies of prioritising profits before people. Mining companies know that a loss against the rural folks would also have significant ripple effects for their operations in disputed areas across the world.

Further questions have been raised about the involvement of organisations such as the ARD, MACUA, MEJCON-SA and university institutes such as CALS and PLAAS in these battles between the rural folks and mining companies and their declared support for the rural folks. “Is this rural populism?” they ask. It is noted that critical and vocal civil society organisations have always been regarded as a “thorn in the eye” by some business and political leaders. 

Activists within the civil society movement have always been condemned as populists. This was the case following the 2012 Marikana massacre in North-West Province in which LOMNIN striking mine workers were butchered by the police. Voices within organised business were quick to blame civil society organisations for fomenting and escalating the tensions through distorted information. Lest we forget that even former President Thabo Mbeki in 2005 lambasted civil society organisations as being manipulated by or serving the interests of foreign donors, something that was totally untrue. 

If the term populist is used as a kind of shorthand political insult against “critical” and “vocal” civil society activists, then such insults do not warrant any response and should be brushed aside. However, if populism is taken to encapsulate the idea that society is separated into two groups, the “poor pure people” and the “rich corrupt elite”, at odds with one another, then these cynics are somewhere towards understanding the critical role of civil society organisations in an unequal society.

ARD and other like-minded organisations stand for the poor and powerless. These organisations are overwhelmingly preoccupied with issues of social and economic justice and the balance of power. As things stand, the balance of power favours the mining companies, least because the rural folks are still largely poorly organised. It is for this reason that organisations like ARD are siding with the rural folks. Delegates at the conference, mainly ordinary people, overwhelminglyagreed that ARD, its affiliates and like-minded organisations should intensify rather than forsake their noble mission of supporting the rural folks. They want these organisations to challenge the existing power dynamics between the state, traditional leaders and the people.

The involvement of university institutes in these struggles is also necessary to augment the capacity required by the rural folks to wage a war against a way-ward mining industry. To explain this rationale or argument further, let us return to the earlier analogy, which depicts mining companies as Goliath and the rural folks as David. For readers not familiar with the biblical text referred to, David is described in the story as a handsome, healthy and brave young man with sparkling eyes, a good soldier and a great musician whose music could even calm the evil spirit. Goliath, on the other hand is described as a three metres tall giant who sparked fear and terror in the hearts and minds of the Israelites. 

For the battle day, the biblical text says, Goliath wore amours from head to toe and was also well-armed with a spear, javelin and a shield. David on the other hand declined a coat of amour, a bronze helmet and a sword he was offered and instead opted for “smooth stones” and catapult. Just as on paper David was a “no-match” to Goliath, the rural folks are on paper a “no-match” to the mighty mining industry.

What makes the mining industry a bully like Goliath is, according to the conference delegates, its almost unparalleled sophistication with regard to access to financial resources and non-financial resources such as skills, technology, media, state instruments, expert legal advice and other expert services. Rural folks lack the sophistication that the mining companies have.  They rely on meagre resources from within their communities, goodwill donations from philanthropists and legal assistance and expert advice from under-resourced public defence lawyers and research institutions. In a standoff such as this the rural folks have limited options such as protest action, advocacy, lobbying, litigation or capitulating.  

Mining companies on the other hand can unleash a massive propaganda arsenal. They are self-assured of protection by law enforcement agencies and of support by government and traditional councils as was the case with the 2012 Marikana massacre in which many striking mine workers were killed by law enforcement agencies. Mining companies also know that they have near unparalleled capacity to counter litigation if circumstances arise.  

It is not that poverty-stricken communities like these rural folks have never won a case against the mighty mining industry. In 2003, former Gencor mine workers won a whopping R490 million (more than US $70 million at that time) for health damages incurred while working at the company’s asbestos mines. There are other cases that ordinary people have won against mining companies, which have not received much publicity because they do not involve huge cash payments to the litigants. Many of these cases are around community consultations and the principle of free, prior and informed consent.

But it is notable that the hit-back campaigns by the rural folks against mining companies haven’t been much effective in many cases. In some cases communities were lured, coerced, manipulated or intimidated into accepting the wishy-washy “social and labour plans” that deliver no real value for communities.  A social and labour plan is according to Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 (as amended), a pre-requisite for the granting of mining or production rights.

These plans are required to include human resources development programmes, mine community development plan, housing and living conditions plan, employment equity plan and processes to save jobs and manage downscaling and/or closure. As one conference delegate from BaPong in North-West Province rightly noted mining companies like LOMNIN have consistently failed to involve communities in the development and implementation of social and labour plans. LOMNIN is one of the biggest mining companies in her area. 

She said: “LOMNIN has never developed BaPong. And it will never develop BaPong...They have been mining at BaPong for more than fifty years. They have never developed us. They are not hiring people at BaPong. Any agreement they [LOMNIN] enter into, they only discuss with the traditional council, the controversial traditional council that makes decisions on behalf of the community – without the community”. A visit to BaPong will make you ask: How are mines spending the five percent equity equivalent for community development? Is it worth it? She also lambasted the Department of   Mineral Resources for failing to scrutinise the reports on these plans in consultation with the communities.

As the discussions at the conference progressed, I realised that also at stake was the principle of free, prior and informed consent referred to earlier. Communities have the right to be informed about any mining development in their area and to say yes or no to such investment and development. This principle is enshrined in the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 (as amended) and is strongly backed by international legal instruments including inter alia the International Labour Organisation Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal People in Independent Countries (1998) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal People (2007). 

The principle of free, prior and informed consent is supposed to protect the rural folks against the bullying mining industry. However, mining companies have learned to circumvent this principle by amongst others withholding damning or unfavourable information, disclosing distorted and or slanted information, organising community consultations to suit pro-mining groupings, issuing bribes to informal and formal political and business leaders and promising jobs to the jobless and better business opportunities to struggling and aspirant small businesses. This strategy gives them the edge over the “converted” and “vigilant” rural folks and concerned residents. The strategy is detrimental to the principles of social and economic justice. It calls for broader support for rural folks in their day-to-day struggles against the mining companies.

Understanding the ramifications

The battles between the rural folks and mining companies have certain consequences and/or ramifications. They erode social cohesion in communities, pitting local residents against each other and against migrant workers and traditional leaders. The community of Xolobeni in Eastern-Cape Province, for example, is divided between pro-mining lobbyists, their followers and the tribal council on the one hand and anti-mining activists and concerned residents on the other hand. According to the delegates at the Cape Town conference, this is also the case in BaPong in North-West Province, Mtubatuba in KwaZulu-Natal Province, Mathibela and Mapela in Limpopo Province and other areas where mining companies want to start or extend mining operations.

In most situations, argued one conference delegate, pro-mining lobbyists are corruptible formal and informal political and business leaders and their followers are poor job-seekers and aspirant and struggling small business operators. On the other hand anti-mining activists are the “converted” whose concern is social and economic justice. Concerned residents put a price on their heritage and the need to protect it and use it in the best interests of everyone in their communities and of the future generations.

But it was the distaste against migrant mine workers among certain conference delegates that left me gobsmacked. One delegate from Bapong in North-West Province lambasted migrant mine workers from the Eastern-Cape Province for rejecting mining operations in their home villages but yet coming to Bapong to work on the mines. She added: “We are talking about land and how can I talk about my land whereas there are other people [migrant workers] who are sitting there and be given the very same opportunity as me to talk about land that is not theirs. That is so wrong. We must talk about that and address these issues”. She also lambasted LOMNIN for relying on migrant labour to the exclusion of local residents. 

It is common knowledge that mining companies largely depend on cheap migrant labour. All the deceased during the 2012 Marikana massacre were migrant workers from faraway provinces. Some historians have even argued that Johannesburg as we know it today was established through the cheap migrant labour system, which was cruel and which attracted vulnerable workers from as far as Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Malawi. They came to work in the gold mines of Johannesburg. The distaste against migrant mine workers became much clearer when one conference delegate from Mpumalanga Province explained the situation in their area. He said: “If you take Secunda, for instance. Majority of the people in Secunda are not working in Sasol [mining company]. But how the system works, is that it has excluded them because of certain reasons…Many faults. Probably the environment has led them unemployable.” 

He added that many local residents in Secunda are renting backyard rooms to migrant workers for income.  He said the challenge is that when there is a community meeting, these backyard dwellers are the ones that are “going to fill up the community hall and make decisions” because they also have social service delivery issues. Borrowing some words from one politician he asked: “Who in your communities is a community”. In simple terms he was asking the delegates who in their community is entitled to participate in community consultations and if migrant mine workers residing in their backyards should be excluded from the consultations and decision-making processes. This is a difficult question. But it adds to the already huge arsenal the mining companies have against the rural folks.

In many mining-affected communities mining companies are building houses for migrant mine workers and as a result integrating them in those communities. The Mineral Resources Department defines a community as “a coherent, social group of persons with interest of rights in a particular area of land which the members have or exercise communally in terms of an agreement, custom or law”. This definition does not really resolve the complication. In the meantime the complication does add to the huge arsenal the mining companies already have against the rural folks.

With regard to the conflicts between rural folks and traditional councils, the overriding concern among conference delegates was that they have been “captured” by mining companies and are signing lucrative mining deals without the involvement of the rural folks because of greed, corruption and nepotism. 

In Mapela (Limpopo Province), for example, the chief was reported to have accepted R175 million (US $ 12 million) in mining land grab settlements by a mining company without the involvement of the community. Similar stories were reported in BaPong Ba Mogale and Bakgatla Ba Kgafela areas in North-West Province. Traditional leaders have always thought communal land belongs to them. In reality, communal land in these areas belongs to the state, which owns it in trust on behalf of the people. It is administered by traditional leaders in terms of allocation of sites for residential, agricultural and business purposes. The rural folks are given “permission to occupy” instead of title deeds. This scenario works in favour of the traditional leaders and the mining companies and to the disadvantage of the rural folks.

One delegate from Zululand (KwaZulu-Natal Province) detailed how their chief and Ingonyama Trust are giving out their ancestral land to mining companies without their consent. He said they have submitted a restitution claim for the land but the trust is opposing their application. The matter has been referred to the courts. Ingonyama Trust was established in 1994 to oversee the land belonging to the Zulu nation. In 1997 a new legislation was passed that proclaimed King Goodwill Zwelithini as the sole trustee. Other provincial delegates also expressed similar frustrations with traditional leaders in their areas. 

It is clear that mining companies have also added traditional councils as part of their armours against the rural folks. Community activists have persistently called for the reconfiguration of traditional councils. As things stand, the prescribed composition of the traditional council favours the chiefs. The Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003 (as amended) prescribes that 60 percent of the members must be selected and 40 percent elected. It also says 30 percent of the members must be women. Activists argue that traditional councils have consistently failed to comply with this requirement. They want to see 60 percent of the members elected and only 40 percent selected. They also want women representation to increase to 50 percent.  However in the meantime, the equation continues to favour the chiefs who the delegates at the conference accused of flirting with mining companies.

Why kid-cloves to mining? 

The government has throughout the years showed greater support, sympathy and protection for the mining industry although occasionally they lambast the industry for failing to adhere to the required occupational health and safety standards. It is as such not surprising that the Minister of Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe, is adamant that he will grant the Australian mining company Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources the licence to mine titanium in Xolobeni (Eastern-Cape) despite opposition from the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which is made up of local activists and concerned residents.

Mantashe has been visiting mining-affected areas of disputes to try and convince communities to accept mining investment and development.  The logic from government appears simple and straight forward: Mining contributes around eight percent to the country’s gross domestic product. The industry is one of the largest employers in the country and its prospects for growth and employment creation are enormous. Given the high unemployment rate of around 27 percent, mining remains a key strategic industry in terms of government’s priorities. 

But some rural folks like communities in Xolobeni (Eastern-Cape Province) prefer tourism to mining. Undoubtedly tourism is a booming industry in South Africa. It has been reported that the industry contributed nine percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2017. It also contributes 9.5 percent to total employment in the country. Tourism can easily be integrated into communities. Can mining, the worst polluter on earth, co-exist with communities? What lessons can we learn from the former mining towns in Free-State Province and Northern-Cape Province that have turned into ghost towns? It has been reported that there is nearly R60 billion (over US $4 billion) being held in funds for rehabilitation of former mining areas across the country and nothing is being done to rehabilitate these former mining areas. 

At the end of the day communities need to decide without coercion, manipulation or intimidation which investment and development is good for their area. In the meantime it is a battle between Goliath and David and as David won, organisations such as ARD, MACUA and MEJCON-SA want to see the rural folks emerging victorious against the mighty mining industry at the end of the day.


*Mafata Mogodi an activist and an independent development practitioner. He can be contacted at <[email protected]>