Illegal mining about survival, not criminality


The mining industry has made the news lately for a range of reasons. In the past four weeks, debates have revolved around the mining charter, with one camp pushing for the transformation of the mines and the other camp saying the proposed charter is impractical at the very least.

At the centre of the controversy is the requirement for mines to have 30% black shareholding within 12 months. Also, the proposed charter requires mining right shareholders to pay 1% of turnover to black shareholders, after dividends have been paid out to all shareholders. Furthermore, 8% of the black shareholdership would have to be held on behalf of communities. The charter has been suspended, pending a court hearing in September.

South Africa’s mining industry was booming in the 1970s and 1980s, contributing 21% to gross domestic product. In 2016, this had fallen to 8%. The consequences of this decline have been borne by mineworkers, with job losses being only one of the results. Mineworkers routinely endanger their lives in mine shafts, with several hundred having died of diseases related to mining, heatstroke and gas explosions. These hazards occur under the watch of mining companies.

Then there are those who resort to artisanal or subsistence mining after losing their jobs. Since 2012, more than 300 artisanal miners have died in conflicts that relate to the control of mine shafts.

The government has gone after this group of mine labourers aggressively, so much so that in 2016 alone about 800 such miners were arrested, and has called for a unified fight against them. It has further declared artisanal mining a national threat.

It might be asked why the state bowed out of the confrontation with corporate capital so quickly, giving mining conglomerates a win in round one. It is useful to keep in mind that the state has always put up a long, drawn-out fight against less-powerful mineworkers, artisanal miners and, to some extent, unions.

Mining corporations have succeeded in the context of failed states, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in the context of what political economists refer to as a dirigiste state — that is, a state that exerts direct control over the economy. Yet the mining firms put forward job creation as their case to the state and the public, persuading everybody else that artisanal miners are a national threat.

But consider this. The mining companies say the proposed charter will lead to about 100 000 job losses and mines being closed, but in June AngloGold Ashanti (the world’s third-largest gold producer) said it may cut 8 500 jobs and place two mines under care and maintenance.

There is about R60-billion in unclaimed funds for mine closure and rehabilitation, a task of the mining houses. The same mines are responsible for annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 900 000 cars. The Chamber of Mines reports that the industry has shed 70 000 jobs in the past five years alone.

None of these is a function of the suspended charter.

My point is not to validate the charter but rather to reveal that the essential question is this: Who controls the narrative and, by implication, the public psyche?

Coming back to artisanal miners, the government and the mines consider them a threat on the grounds of safety. Under this argument, artisanal miners in South Africa are labelled as illegal miners. In other words, they operate outside regulations. But so do the mining houses.

There are many deaths of legal mineworkers that result from gas explosions, strokes or environmental diseases linked to mining, except that these are dismissed as “accidents”. Some tragedies such as the Marikana massacre have been executed by the state in an attempt to protect the interests of mining houses.

Emerging research from the human economy programme at the University of Pretoria shows that people will come up with ways to survive, even if it is outside the law. Programme head Keith Hart says this informality is not confined to small-scale traders.

In fact, according to Hart, the bigger economic actors become, the more they seek informal ways to avoid regulations — and only use the law when it suits them.

Artisanal miners are therefore on the tail end of informality, and the mines and the state seem more concerned about the safety of these artisanal miners than the miners themselves.

The livelihood narrative is not told. We are also not told that these miners are as unsafe as legal miners are, or that mining houses set up shop in dangerous and volatile places — only that they hire the state to protect them.

The crackdown on artisanal miners should therefore not be seen as primarily a question of safety; it is first a question of maintaining a particular form of capitalism using state regulation as an excuse.

If, for some reason, the state threatens the stability of the established system of accumulation, the mining firms threaten back with greater resolve and capital.

The more mineworkers remain precarious, the more the corporate system of accumulation thrives, and the more mining houses capture the state.

The state has its calculus wrong. Perhaps it should revisit its constitutional mandate and rediscover that mining firms are more than capable of protecting their economic interests, legally or illegally.

And yet labelling their actions illegal can create a firestorm. The frontline responder to artisanal mining should not be the police or the military. It should be the department of economic development, simply because this is a livelihood question more than a safety question.

Expecting the mining companies to change their narrative of criminalising artisanal miners is, of course, to live in cloud-cuckoo-land. But expecting the state to change its narrative in support of these resilient actors in the human economy is constitutional wisdom.

Dr Jason Musyoka is a development economist and postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria

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Jason Musyoka
Jason Musyoka
Associate Researcher at University of Pretoria. Guest lecturer at UKZN. Former Post-Doctoral Fellow at University of Pretoria. Former Research at Synovate.

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