Mining in South Africa: radical resistance

The oppression and exploitation of mining communities means that even within our democracy, the legacy of the apartheid and colonial era mining regimes continues.

Sobantu Mzwakali
19 February 2017

People and machines. At Malahleni, Mpumalanga of South Africa.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 endure many harmful mining conditions.  

It is through action that change emerges. It is still the case that meaningful interactions between mining communities and the mines only come about as a result of protest or demonstrations. To find alternatives to mining in the long-term and to address pressing issues in the short-term, civil society needs to invest resources into countering power through more coordinated resistance and solidarity. This starts with building a strong community voice aware of community level issues.

The legacy

The continuing legacy of mining in South Africa as it relates to the well being of mine-hosting communities necessarily presents us with contradictory perspectives. Mining, 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. But mining has also caused considerable destruction to black communities and sowed divisions between white and non-white populations. Black Africans had been mining South Africa’s natural resources before the arrival of whites. But whites industrialised and corporatised mining, stifling artisanal mining practices in the process of introducing advanced machinery. As their land was appropriated and exploited, the only role for blacks was to provide the labour to mine it. The wealth of whites like Cecil Rhodes and Ernest Oppenheimer was built on this exploitation, while blacks became landless. However, the transition from artisanal to industrialisation was not smooth.

Resistance has always 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 sinister system of Apartheid. The consequences of mining were numerous, including: the migrant labor system that helped destroy African peasant life; the destructive “location”, the urban and rural settlements created for black populations that persist today; and the creation of a white poor who rose rapidly up the class ladder and ever since have feared that they will fall and become like “the native”, “ bantu” or “the black”, whom they were taught to fear as they feared the devil.

Current realities of the mine-hosting communities in South Africa

All the mining areas today suffer a range of problems, one of the first being the ongoing land dispossession which is supported – whether directly or indirectly – by government officials and traditional leaders. The Royal Bafokeng is one of many examples. In 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 aspects of community life also fall victim to this process.

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Vale Mining Corporation fence at Tete, a coal-mining village in Mozambique. Children playing.The disruption of family life and community cohesion combined with a mass of unemployed youth has opened the way to serious drug, alcohol and crime problems. The large increase in teenage pregnancy is one of the outcomes. Young women live in a state of permanent violence. Mining areas show the highest incidence of HIV/Aids. The disruption of villagers over 100 years by rapid unplanned mining development brings in a large number of migrant workers, many of them casuals seeking work. Competing pressures on social services lead to gruesome crimes.


Then there is the environmental damage: the destruction of soil so that no agriculture will be possible in the future in areas such as Rustenburg, once a regional food basket. Health problems from air pollution are now reaching serious proportions, together with the destruction of the wetlands, pollution of rivers and over-use of water in a water scarce country.

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 have 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. 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 easier.


But 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 run out. 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.

Resistance and the future

Mining-affected communities are poor, with high rates of youth unemployment 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 the people are angry. The protests that have followed have been mainly about jobs, with other issues such as environmental pollution and social insecurity coming second.

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Trucks carrying mining waste to be dumped at Motlhontlho, South Africa, where it encroaches on the fields and homes of the community.There is a continuing resistance against threats to land ownership and mining community trusts which politicians, traditional leaders and businesses have captured for their own benefit. The Bafokeng Land Buyers Association (BLBA) has been waging a significant legal battle to regain their land 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 example of grassroots activism, MACUA is a network of mining-affected communities.

We need more than superficial reform in mining, a radical programme that removes mining from private corporations and government elites in order to remove it from the dictates of the market. Our strategy must start 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 that of the corporations or elites. Our tactics must entail the skilful 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 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. Only through such a resistance can we slowly building the alternative.

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A board at the entrance of the open pit of Mokgalakwena Platinum Mine, Limpopo, South Africa.

Photographs are from the author's research into the region's mine-hosting communities.

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