Colonial and Apartheid legacies stand in the way of wealth redistribution in South Africa
In South Africa, small-scale mining existed way before large-scale and formalised digging of minerals took place. Though people continue to mine informally, they do so illegally and in an environment fraught with all kinds of danger. This is a result of colonial-era laws which the current dispensation seems unwilling to get rid of.
South Africa is the most consistently unequal society in the world. The country’s wealth continues to be concentrated in the hands of a few. Recent statistics places the country at number one in the world; it has the highest rate of unemployment. In so dismal a climate, the problem of inequality will continue to thrive. There is little doubt that colonialism and apartheid are the root causes of this problem. However, corruption and the Covid-19 pandemic have compounded the crisis in South Africa.
The problem of contemporary South Africa stem, in part, from land hunger or a lack of land redistribution. The negotiated settlement of 1994 failed to address this issue. And millions of South Africans today view this failure as a betrayal of the struggle for freedom. Because freedom, in the true sense of the word, would have meant land ownership.
Land and the redistribution of wealth have always been at the centre of the national liberation struggle against colonialism and apartheid here in the country.
In fact, the case of South Africa is not an exception. As the Martinique-born revolutionary and thinker Frantz Fanon observed in The Wretched of the Earth: “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and above all dignity.”
Land redistribution has been an utter failure in post-independence or democratic South Africa. Distribution of wealth, particularly mineral wealth has not happened, ensuring that millions of Black people remain impoverished. Given this context, Fanon is correct in saying that “the issue which blocks the horizon [is] the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be”.
The wealth question has been avoided for far too long in our country, at least by those in power. However, ordinary working-class folks have always grappled with this question, whether through workers’ unions, social movements or community organisations.
Artisanal and small-scale mining is a sector that is people-centred and driven by ordinary folks to forge livelihoods. There are, of course, criminal syndicates operating within the sector. But an overwhelming majority of those who, risking their lives, go into the belly of the ground in search of gold and other minerals are ordinary people. They come from KwaZulu-Natal, they come from Lesotho, and many other parts of South Africa. It is so they can eat that they become artisanal miners.
But they are criminalised and denied access to the very same minerals that supposedly belong to them. The history of artisanal and small-scale informal mining is as old as the formal-mining industry. In fact, there are credible claims that artisanal and informal mining birthed formal mining. The colonial and apartheid regimes ignored the sector and pretended that it did not exist.
Though recognised to exist by the new dispensation in 1994, artisanal and small-scale miners continue to operate in precarious conditions. Those involved in it constantly risk detention and death.
This story of artisanal mineworkers or Zama-zamas (those who keep on trying) can best be told through the history of colonialism and apartheid and how working-class Black people’s labour was exploited in the creation of Johannesburg.
Black labour built Jozi
The economic hub of South Africa, Johannesburg, is known as the city of gold!
It is the gold rush and subsequent influence of gold that earned Johannesburg this label. The discovery of gold in the 1800s was the biggest driver for the infrastructural development and the main reason millions of people settled in the city. It is the blood, sweat and labour of Black migrants that built the city of gold. This important fact is often ignored or reduced into a mere footnote in the story of Johannesburg.
Armed with only capital and industrialist mining skills, mining bosses in South Africa relied on their colonialist instincts of exploiting the physical labour of Black people. In the 1800s, great African nations like BaPedi, AmaZulu and AmaXhosa had been devastatingly defeated by settler colonialists in land wars.
Oppressive taxes were then imposed on African peoples in the hinterlands by the new colonial masters, forcing many to migrate to the cities in order to assist their chiefdoms pay the newly manufactured debt to the colonial administration. Attempts at resisting the oppressive taxes lead by Bhambatha kaMancinza were crushed in 1906, for example, forcing young Zulu people into labour in Johannesburg.
There is no doubt that the final defeat of Africans in these colonial wars made it possible for the government of the day and mining bosses to embark on mass recruitment drives in the southern tip of the continent. Men and women that had to toil in the mines and homes of whites respectively, came from rural parts of South Africa. They came from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia and other countries in the region. They were without labour rights, let alone decent wages and benefits.
The work contracts obligated mineworkers to remain in the mines and compounds for 11 months or face imprisonment if they tried to abscond and return home. This work arrangement increased production but had a devastating impact on African families. In fact, it totally destroyed families. What family could be there with fathers and mothers never able to return home?
In the early days of mining, the nature of the work was extremely risky and dangerous and the fatalities from rock falls were very high. Furthermore, the life expectancy of mineworkers was shortened from inhaling toxins and dust.
To date, the recruitment process of the mining companies is still colonial, the labour force is still made up of Black men and women from the countryside and migrants. Mineworkers continue to be paid very low wages. Mineworkers who have lost their lives through lung cancer and other respiratory diseases are yet to be compensated. Many caught the poison of the mines while young and went to early graves, leaving families and young children behind.
The land belonging to Africans in South Africa was formally foreclosed in 1913 through the Natives Land Act.
This law made it impossible for Black people to own land. They were violently dispossessed of it and condemned to unproductive, small pockets of native reserves. Effectively, all land seized and stolen by white settlers from 1652 was consolidated and Black people occupied 13% of un-expropriated land. This conquest became possible through the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 that excluded Black people, an unholy alliance between the Dutch and British settlers.
But Black people continued to resist the land grabs, the white domination and the racism. Leaders of nations and the newly educated Black middle class formed the South African Natives National Congress (SANNC) in 1912 as a response to colonial conquest.
In one of their first meetings, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, one of the founders, gave a keynote address in which he addressed the significance of challenging the colonial regime:
“We have discovered that in the land of their birth, Africans are treated as hewers of wood and drawers of water. The white people of this country have formed what is known as the Union of South Africa – a union in which we have no voice in the making of laws and no part in their administration. We have called you, therefore, to this conference, so that we can together devise ways and means of forming our national union for the purpose of creating national unity and defending our rights and privileges.”
From this gathering, the SANNC was formed. It would later change its name to the African National Congress (ANC).
The apartheid regime benefited greatly from the colonial industrial period – particularly mining. Well-paying and professional jobs were reserved only for whites; Black people were to be super exploited and paid very low wages.
The abhorrent racist regime of apartheid implemented mass eviction programmes against Black people who lived in urban areas and moved them to townships like Soweto. Under this regime, the whole of South Africa became racially divided, with Black people being in the margins and peripheries.
Because of growing international condemnation, boycotts and pressure, the United Nations General Assembly declared apartheid a crime against humanity.
As the apartheid regime intensified violence and crime against the people of South Africa, so did the resistance to it. The 1945 generation, lead by Anton Lembede, radicalised the African National Congress – programs moved from mere petitioning to mass mobilisation of oppressed people against the whole system. Radical policies were adopted by the liberation movement, like the 1955 Freedom Charter. Central to this document, amongst other provisions, was the question of land and wealth redistribution, particularly of mineral resources. The charter explicitly called for the nationalisation mines.
The banning of national liberation movements and the arrest of revolutionaries like Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela would, however, weaken the struggle in the 1960s. It was during this period that Steve Biko emerged with the Black Consciousness Movement. While his philosophy centred around dismantling white supremacy and a general inferiority complex amongst black people, Biko also recognised the importance of wealth redistribution.
In the now famous book, I Write What I like, Biko says: “There is no running away from the fact that now in South Africa there is such an ill distribution of wealth that any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless.”
It is clear that Biko attached significance on the question of wealth redistribution in achieving total emancipation.
In the same text, he continues to say: “If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that Black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few Blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday. So, for meaningful change to appear there needs to be an attempt at reorganising the whole economic pattern and economic policies within this country.”
After 27 years, post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa has failed to address the original sin. Black people continue to be landless and pariahs in their own country.
It does not seem the warning Biko made in the peak of apartheid was considered. The liberation movement disbanded the revolutionary aspirations of the Freedom Charter. The nationalisation of mines and restitution of land became empty political rhetoric used by politicians for re-election. The former liberation movement endorsed anti-poor neoliberal policies. Racial capitalism persists even after the attainment of freedom.
Artisanal and small-scale mining
The ruling party has always been aware of the economic potential of small scaling mining in eradicating poverty. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), a policy aimed at eradicating past injustices, recognised small-scale mining as an important sector. This policy identified the artisanal small-scale mining sector as a disruptor of the skewed ownership patterns created by apartheid.
The law regulating mines and minerals subsequently recognised the existence of the sector. With this recognition, some have received permits to mine at a small scale. However, many still operate outside of the law, because they are without permits. The legal framework presents many challenges. Artisanal mineworkers cannot meet the financial obligations in order to get access to permits. Those with money benefit instead of working-class folks.
In post-apartheid South Africa, the state is the custodian of mineral resources on behalf of the people. This is why anyone who wishes to mine can apply for a permit. However, the red tape and top-down approach makes small scale mining difficult and defeats the intention and purpose of the law, which is to redistribute wealth.
There needs to be support of bottom-up approaches, centred on communities at grassroots level. Be it through cooperatives or other forms, people doing small-scale mining – whether illegal or not, or undocumented migrants – should be part of the conversations that will shape the sector. Glimpses of this have been seen in some parts of the country that mine diamonds. Decriminalising small-scale mining in communities, by granting mining permits, helps people benefit from their resources more meaningfully.
A non-interventionist approach by the state won’t help the situation of the Zama-zamas. The state must be deliberate in its interventions aimed at assisting them. The state must create a market or open up the market for artisanal and small-scale mining. At the moment, it is the buyer that keeps mining operations of small-scale and artisanal miners going. This poses all kinds of problems for the sector. For example, these miners are forced to operate in the shadows. And this exposes honest hard-working people to criminal syndicates.
Proper state support will go a long way. Fatalities will be minimised, if the Zama-zamas have proper access to protective gear and equipment to mine. All this could be possible with deliberate state support.
And, lastly, the conversation around redress of apartheid injustices should include corporate accountability. There are many mines in and around Gauteng province that have been abandoned and not properly rehabilitated. Big conglomerates that have made a fortune out of these mines must be held accountable. South Africa has the deepest mines in the world, both operating and not. Rock falls are a common feature in the mining sector and could easily be avoided with the adoption of technology.
More importantly, the environmental hazards posed by the abandoned mines and mine dumps has greater implications for people in the south of Johannesburg. Not only is the air they breathe toxic and causing them respiratory diseases, but children also cannot play freely. Now and again, we hear reports of children being swallowed by sick holes and not returning from mine shafts.
And it is on such dangerous territory that these artisanal miners operate, day in and day out.
The state must hold corporates accountable. The state must recognise Zama-zamas and provide them with support and access to proper sites and minerals so they mine in safer conditions.
The state can no longer postpone the question of land and wealth redistribution. These questions are integral in the undoing of the colonial and apartheid legacies.
L Callinicos Who Built Jozi (2012) Wits University Press.
T Ngcukaitobi Land Matters: South Africa’s failed land reforms and the road ahead (2021) Penguin Books.
B Ngqulunga The Man Who Founded the ANC: A biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme (2017) Penguin Books.
PT Mellet The Lie of 1652: A decolonised history of land (2020) Tafelberg.
M Mamdani Citizens and Subjects: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism (1996) Princeton Univerty Press.
F Fanon Wretched of the Earth (1963) Penguin Books.
S Biko I write what I like 40th edition (2017) Picado Africa.