/ 16 November 2018

Activists go for weakened mining

Indian demonstrators burn an effigy of Vedanta Resources boss Anil Agarwal because of the killings of at least 10 people during a protest about pollution from a copper factory.
Indian demonstrators burn an effigy of Vedanta Resources boss Anil Agarwal because of the killings of at least 10 people during a protest about pollution from a copper factory. (Arun Sankar/AFP)


The World Social Forum’s Thematic Forum on Mining and Extractivist Economy, convened earlier this month in Johannesburg, hot on the heels of the Southern Africa People’s Tribunal on Transnational Corporations. Hundreds of activists, grounded in local grievances, met to agree on their approach.

This is the appropriate moment, here and around the world, for grassroots groups to tackle issues relating to mining, oil and gas. World economic chaos is deterring investment.

Mining houses cite not just South Africa’s black economic empowerment ownership requirements but also many other structural problems: weak commodity prices compared with the 2011-2015 plateau; China’s unstable demand; higher production costs; embarrassing revelations about the sector’s debilitating illicit financial flows (tax evasion); society’s push back against systemic corruption and violence; labour militancy, especially against looming mass retrenchments; more effective localised resistance campaigns and rising climate consciousness aimed not just at fossil fuels but also at carbon-intensive minerals smelting.

Extractivesector reformism

A stand against mining can now take root, in part because of ineffectual reformism associated with corporate social responsibility gimmicks (such as the World Bank’s long-standing celebration of Lonmin) and with the mining sector’s civil society watchdogs. That occurs at the mainly uncritical Alternative Mining Indaba, a nongovernmental organisation-dominated event held annually in Cape Town as the corporations gather nearby for the African Mining Indaba.

The thematic forum firmly opposes “extractivism”. Unlike the alternative indaba, it aims to connect the dots between oppressions, defining its target as extraction in a way that is “devastating and degrading”. Mining exacerbates “conditions of global warming and climate injustice. It subjects local economies to a logic of accumulation that privately benefits corporations.” Mining represses “traditional, indigenous and peasant communities by violations of human rights, affecting in particular the lives of women and children”. The last point is not incidental, as two of the main forum organisers were the Southern Africa Rural Women’s Assembly and the Jo’burg-based WoMin network, African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction.

Inspired by Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) activists led by Nonhle Mbuthuma, the fight to halt titanium mining on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast generated a popular new slogan, the #Right2SayNo.

(Meanwhile, at a Xolobeni conflict resolution meeting last month, Mining Minister Gwede Mantashe revealed how desperately he wants investment by the likes of even the aggressive Australian firm MRC.)

No means no

Such rights language proved invaluable in the Constitutional Court last month when the Itireleng residents won a judgment against displacement from their North West farm, which is under attack by a local platinum mining house.

On Tuesday, the forum, which gathered at Newtown’s Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, interrupted lunch to demonstrate at the nearby headquarters of AngloGold Ashanti. The JSE-listed firm was shamed in 2005 by Human Rights Watch for its alliances with warlords responsible for the minerals-related murder of millions of people in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 2011, AngloGold Ashanti won the title of the “world’s most irresponsible corporation” at the Davos Public Eye ceremony, organised alongside the World Economic Forum, following criticism by a key forum participant, Hannah Owusu-Koranteng, from Ghana’s Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining. Since then, the firm has attracted even more protests by communities, labour, feminists and environmentalists from Chile to Colombia, Ghana, Guinea, Tanzania and South Africa about mass retrenchments, inadequate pay and a delay over silicosis-related compensation payments. It’s a sick company, and its local stock market price has fallen by more than half since a mid-2016 peak.

Criticised by investors who believe “AngloGold has not matched up to its global peers”, in large part because of less profitable South African holdings, AngloGold Ashanti is rapidly leaving its home base.

The firm made its fortune during the 20th-century era of apartheid extractivism, when it was run by the Oppenheimer family. Its new boss, Kelvin Dushnisky, previously led Toronto-based Barrick (the world’s largest gold producer) during its recent reign of mining-related repression.

The mining corporations under fire at the forum are not only the typical pinstriped, ethics-challenged cowboys from the London-Toronto-Melbourne-Jo’burg circuits. Next door in Mozambique, Rio-based Vale’s coal-mining operations at Moatize were disrupted last month because of “excessive pollution [and] acceleration of the decay of houses due to explosion of dynamites”, documented by activists.

In Mozambique, Vale and the Indian firms Jindal, Coal of India and Vedanta have been criticised for displacement and destruction.

Protests against foreign companies are prolific in the coal-rich Tete province. Further east, on the Mozambican coastline, the beach sands have been destroyed by the Chinese firm Haiyu. As several Zimbabweans testified, the looting of $13-billion in diamonds from Marange was done jointly since 2008 by Anjin from China and generals from Harare.

Vedanta boss Anil Agarwal is perhaps the target of the most sustained criticism, including a mass protest in May against Vedanta’s Thoothukudi Sterlite copper plant. Police responded with the massacre of at least 10 Indians who had demanded an end to pollution.

Protest against Africa’s largest copper mine, Vedanta-owned Konkola, centres on 1 826 Zambian farms poisoned by toxic waste. Just before the London Stock Exchange delisting of Vedanta last month, reggae musician Maiko Zulu protested (and was arrested) at the British high commission in Lusaka, demanding that authorities deny Agarwal his escape from London before justice was served. Agarwal bought Konkola for just $25-million in 2004 and a decade later bragged that he had taken home between $500-million and $1-billion a year from Konkola.

After extractivism

Such Western-plus-Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) exploitation exemplifies the mineral, oil and gas looting underway across Africa. The extraction of nonrenewable resources that is uncompensated by reinvested profits amounts to an estimated $150-billion annually, far more even than the $80-billion that the African Union’s Thabo Mbeki commission on illicit financial flows identified, and disappears mainly via mining and petroleum firms.

But, increasingly, corporations are pushing the people and the environment too far and resistance is rising. According to Rosa Luxemburg Foundation officer Tadzio Mueller, a key strategist of Germany’s anti-coal movement, “we are doing here what effective social movements have always done: identify our opponents’ power and shut it down”.

As Anglo American leader Mark Cutifani remarked in 2015, “there’s something like $25-billion worth of projects tied up or stopped” by mining critics around the world. How activists can increase that figure motivated the week’s discussions.

More difficult, though, was overcoming North-South intra-movement contradictions, and moving from criticism to strategies for post-extractivist systems of political economy, political ecology and social reproduction.

The central questions remained to be explored at future events: What minimally necessary mining can be justified; how can those benefits be “socialised”;and how can the costs of business as usual be prevented?

Patrick Bond teaches political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of governance