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Sobantu Mzwakali

Mining is a major economic activity in South Africa. But it is entangled with the atrocious legacies of apartheid. It benefits mostly elite whites to the exclusion of the black majority who suffer most from the harmful effects such as environmental degradation and poor health. Black resistance against the evils of mining has a long history. Now it needs to be strengthened.

In the short-term, communities need to address some of the most pressing issues they face. They cannot always afford to wait for laws to be changed or amended. This is why community empowerment is so critical, particularly in the mine-hosting communities of Southern Africa, where community members often endure harmful mining conditions. Therefore, community resistance is a pivotal aspect of transforming interactions and relationships between mine-hosting communities and mining companies. We need to radicalise the action against mining in order to eradicate precarious conditions endured by mine-hosting communities.

It is through action that change emerges. As evident, meaningful interaction between mining communities and the mines only come about as a result of protests or demonstrations. Therefore, to find alternative to mining in the long-term and to address pressing issues in the short-term, there is a need for civil society to invest resources in spaces that counter power through more coordinated resistance and solidarity. This starts with building strong community voices that speak of awareness on community level issues.

This piece examines the challenges, responses and adaptation strategies to address community level issues in mine-hosting communities with a focus on:

  • The larger view of mining and the people of South Africa;
  • The current situation in the mine-hosting communities;
  • The communities’ responses to mining impacts; and
  • The future and why civil society should support it.

Keep the coal in the hole: the people vs. the machines, the effects of capital on everyday life. (At Malahleni, Mpumalanga of south Africa)

Historical background and continuing legacy

The continuing legacy of mining in South Africa as it relates to the well being of mine-hosting communities necessarily gives rise to contradictory perspectives. The first perspective is that mining, as the main source of the country’s wealth, contributed significantly to developing South Africa into one of the leading economies in Africa and the Third World, and also has helped to develop mining communities. The contrasting perspective asserts that mining caused considerable destruction to black communities, and sowed divisions between white and non-white populations. For instance, black Africans had been mining natural resources before the arrival of whites. But the arrival of whites industrialised and corporatised mining, stifling artisanal mining practices as these came to be viewed as primitive and inefficient in light of the influx of advanced technology. While their land was possessed and exploited, the only role for blacks was to provide the labour to mines. The wealth of whites, like Cecil Rhodes and Ernest Oppenheimer, was built on this practice while blacks became landless, serving only as exploited labor. However, the transition from artisanal to industrialisation was not smooth.

Historically, resistance has been a significant feature of the South African socio-economic landscape. It was not the colonial wars over land which alone shaped modern South Africa. The allocation of the proceeds of gold and diamond mining also gave rise to resistance. The Anglo-Boer War, the rise of a white Afrikaner working class, and the emergence of Afrikaner capital that competed with English corporations – all these pivotal events shaped the very sinister system of Apartheid. The consequences of mining were numerous, including:

- The migrant labor system and the destruction of African peasant life;

- The destructive “location”, the urban and rural settlements created for black populations that persist today; and

- The white poor who rose rapidly up the class ladder and ever since fear that they will fall and become like “the native,” “ bantu” or “the black”, whom they were taught to fear as they feared the devil.

After global corporations have feasted, artisanal miner picks up the crumbs. (At Tete, Mozambique)

Current Situation: The realities of mine-hosting communities in South Africa

All current mining areas suffer a range of problems, the main one being continued land dispossession, which is supported – whether directly or indirectly – by government officials and traditional leaders. The Royal Bafokeng is one of many examples. In part of provinces such as North West and Limpopo, there are a number of conflicts between the people and traditional leaders. People’s traditional economic practices have been severely disrupted by mining. Moreover, the moving of ancestral graveyards and the destruction of traditional plants serve to illustrate how the cultural and spiritual ways of communities have also been impinged upon.

Then there is the disruption of villagers over 100 years by rapid unplanned mining which s in large numbers of migrant workers, many of them casuals seeking work. This puts pressure on social services, leading to gruesome crimes. Disruption of family life and community cohesion together with a mass of unemployed youth has opened the way to serious drug, alcohol and crime problems. Also,

-Young women live in a state of permanent violence. The large increase in teenage pregnancy is one of the outcomes.

- Mining areas show the highest incidence of HIV/Aids;

- Health problems from air pollution are very serious;

- Environmental damage, the destruction of soil so that there is no agriculture that will be possible in the future. Rustenburg was once a regional food basket; and

- Destruction of ground water being the destruction of the wetlands, pollution of rivers and over-use of water in a water scarce country.

The system allows the selected few to have a stake in mining benefits and thus communities are divided. Now, young people are looking to the city for education and jobs.

Vale Mining Corporations erected a fence to cut of the Bagamoy/Tete community from their grazing land, brick making yards and the graveyards of their ancestors. But the children,they will play. (Mozambique)

Resistance: Elites’ collusion vs. people’s response

The successful export of raw materials earns large returns – enough for a society to purchase from outside the country and neglect to develop its own manufacturing base. The leadership elite and big mining corporations become very powerful and estranged from the people. Corruption grows rapidly because the wealth is held within the company and this money is not spread across the large working base. Nigeria with its oil is a classic example. South Africa is showing signs of a similar tendency even though we rely partly on mining. It is almost as though ‘if’ we did not have such large mines, our conflicts would have been easier to resolve because the stakes would have been lower. Therefore, the long-term solution is to move rapidly away from mining. But political leaders, traditional leaders and corporations colluding as rich and powerful elites, are not likely to allow us to do that.

The end of gold mining is devastating in once thriving towns in the Goldfields and West Rand, such as Welkom and Dominionville. In 50 years, we will have serious problems in places like Rustenburg and Mokopane when platinum has ran out. But opportunistic political leaders only live in 5-10 years mindsets, around what wealth they can accumulate while they are still in office. According to estimations made by the South African Institute of International Affairs, it would cost the government R40-billion to rehabilitate all the abandoned mines.

Mining-affected communities are poor, with high rates of youth unemployed and they are very divided. Mines and governments since 1994 have urged communities not to resist mining, promising that it would bring jobs and development. This has not happened and people are angry with that. The protests that have followed have been mainly about jobs, with other issues such as environmental pollution and social insecurity coming second.

There is a continuing resistance against threats to land ownership and mining community trusts which politicians, traditional leaders and businesses for their own benefit have captured. The Bafokeng Land Buyers Association (BLBA) has been waging a significant legal battle to regain their land back and there are many other communities taking such routes. Then there are small groups of young people in every mining area who organise. The Community Monitors, for example, work in 10 areas with an average of 10 activists. As another illustration of grassroots activism, MACUA is a network of mining-affected communities.

Oppression is advanced when children stop to imagine. Coal mining village. (At Tete, Mozambique)

Mining waste transportation from Mokalakwena Platinum mine, Limpopo.This dump has started encroaching their plowing fields and homes of Motlhontlho community. (South Africa)

The future

We need a powerful and hopeful idea to overthrow the existing mining situation, and not simply a superficial reformation of mining. The future might bring a radical programme that takes away mining from private corporations and government elites, in order to remove it from the dictates of the market.

Our strategy must start immediately with the community. We have to build a strong community advocacy that is aware, informed and progressive, but not populist. We have to develop a body of highly skilled community activists who are able to investigate problems, document them, and effectively communicate both within the community and globally. In this way, they will be able to tell their own story, as opposed to the corporations or elites. Our tactics must entail the skillful use of the tools available to us, such as the wealth of new information and communications technology. Above all, we need to free the minds of young black people; not in an abstract way, but in order for them to extricate themselves from a context in which they are brutalised by capitalist regimes.

Civil society must support this future. If it is committed to a truly open society, it must give support to local community resistance because it is at the grassroots level that one can determine whether society is open or not; not in the laws and institutions alone. The oppression and exploitation of mining communities means that even within our democracy, the legacy of the apartheid and colonial era mining regimes continues. There is a need to strengthen resistance locally; making sure that the community voice is appropriate. It is within this resistance that we are slowly building the alternative.

A board at the entrance of the open pit of Mokgalakwena Platinum Mine, Limpopo. Trucks carrying loads of mining waste to be dumped at Motlhontlho. This dump has started encroaching their plowing fields and homes. (South Africa)

* Sobantu Mzwakali is an activist-writer based in Cape Town, South Africa, where he works for the Land and Accountability Researche Centre at the University of Cape Town. His articles have appeared in Ground Up and Pambazuka News. His writings do not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation he is or has been affiliated with.

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