Mining conflicts multiply, as critics gather in Johannesburg

November 19, 2018

The World Social Forum’s “Thematic Forum on Mining and Extractivism” convened from November 12-15 here in Johannesburg, just after the Southern Africa People’s Tribunal on Transnational Corporations.

In between, at the site of the notorious massacre of striking mine workers in 2012 on the platinum belt to the west, a new was launched — Business as Usual after Marikana. It is critical not only of the mining company Lonmin, dozens of whose workers were shot dead, but of its international financiers.

This is the moment for a profoundly critical standpoint to take root, unhindered by ineffectual gimmicks associated with Corporate Social Responsibility or the mining sector’s civilised-society watchdogging at the mainly uncritical Alternative Mining Indaba.

That NGO-dominated event occurs annually in Cape Town every February, at the same time and place where the extractive mega-corporations gather.

The Thematic Forum firmly opposes the model of “extractivism”. Unlike the Indaba, it aims to connect the dots between oppressions, defining its target as extraction of “so-called natural resources” in a way that is “devastating and degrading”, since mining exacerbates “conditions of global warming and climate injustice.

It “subjects local economies to a logic of accumulation that privately benefits corporations” and 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 organisers are the Southern Africa Rural Women’s Assembly and the WoMin network: “African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction.” Inspired by Amadiba Crisis Committee activists in the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast, they’ve campaigned hard for the #Right2SayNo.

Last month, such rights language proved invaluable in the Constitutional Court here in Johannesburg. The Itireleng community won a judgement against displacement from their farm, under attack by a local platinum mining house.

This was pleasantly surprising to many Court critics, given how much corporate power is hardwired into South Africa’s founding document.

On the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape Province last month, South Africa’s mining minister Gwede Mantashe showed how desperately he wants investment by the likes of aggressive Australian titanium mining firm MRC. But the Amadiba Crisis Committee and its allies have consistently shown their ability to say “No!”

No means no

The Forum’s opening morning featured a demonstration at the nearby world headquarters of AngloGold Ashanti, the locally-listed firm shamed in 2005 by Human Rights Watch for its alliances with warlords during the minerals-related murder of millions of people in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 2011, AngloGold Ashanti won the title “world’s most irresponsible corporation” at the “Davos Public Eye” ceremony organised outside the World Economic Forum by Greenpeace and the Berne Declaration.

Since then, the firm has attracted even more intense community, labour, feminist and environmental protests from Chile to Colombia to Ghana to Guinea to Tanzania, as well as at home in South Africa over mass retrenchments, inadequate pay and delay of silicosis-related compensation payments. It’s a sick company, with its Johannesburg Stock Exchange price having fallen by more than half since a mid-2016 peak (and even further from its 2006-12 JSE valuations).

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 exiting its home country. The firm made its fortune during the notorious 20th century era of extreme apartheid extractivism.

Perhaps even worse is the new boss, Kelvin Dushnisky, who has presided over Toronto-based Barrick (the world’s largest gold producer, known in Africa as Acacia) during its recent reign of mining terrorism, including mass rape.

The mining corporations under fire at the Forum are not only the typical pinstriped, ethics-challenged cowboys from the London-Toronto-Melbourne-Joburg circuits. Next door in Mozambique, Rio-based Vale’s coalmining operations at Moatize were disrupted last month, according to activist allies at the Associação de Apoio e Assistência Jurídica às Comunidades, due to “excessive pollution [and] acceleration of the decay of houses due to explosion of dynamites”.

Though trying to “mask brutal exploitation with the language of South-South solidarity,” as documented by Canadian researcher Judith Marshall, Vale is brutal in several jurisdictions. It was judged in 2012 by Berne Declaration and the Brazilian Movement of Landless Workers (MST) as the worst company in the world  due to “its labour relations, community impact and environmental record”.

In Mozambique, Vale as well as the Indian firms Coal of India, Vedanta and Jindal have been criticised for displacement and destruction. Community protests against foreign companies are prolific in coal-rich Tete Province.

Further east, on the Mozambican coastline, beach sands in some communities have been destroyed by the voracious Chinese firm Haiyu.

Local resident Nassire Omar, who can no longer carry out fishing subsistence, complains: “They owe us because they have taken our beautiful sand from us and left nothing. We don’t know the quantity of the sand that they took over seven years, but we know that they profited from it and we want our dues.

“They have taken all the riches here and left us with nothing.”

Vedanta and its boss Anil Agarwal — who is also Anglo American Corporation’s largest single investor with more than 20% of shares — have witnessed sustained protests. This included a mass protest in May against the ThoothukudiSterlite copper plant that his officials responded to with a massacre of 13 people demanding an end to pollution.

Protest against Africa’s largest copper mine, Konkola, centres on 1826 Zambian farmers poisoned by Vedanta. Just before the London Stock Exchange delisting of Vedanta last month, popular Zambian reggae musician Maiko Zulu was arrested as he protested at the British High Commission in Lusaka. Zulu demanded that authorities deny Agarwal his escape from London prior to justice being served.

Agarwal bought that mine for US$25 million in 2004 and a decade later bragged that ever since he had taken $500 million to $1 billion home from Konkola annually.

Resisting global exploitation

These sorts of Western-plus-BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) modes of super-exploitation exemplify the mineral, oil and gas looting underway across Africa.

The uncompensated extraction of non-renewable resources amounts to an estimated $150 billion annually, far more even than the $50-$80 billion Illicit Financial Flows and $50 billion in legal profit repatriation from Africa by mining and petroleum firms.

But increasingly, mining companies are pushing people and the environment too far — and resistance is rising. As Anglo American Corporation leader Mark Cutifani remarked in 2015, “There’s something like $25 billion worth of projects tied up or stopped” by mining critics across the world.

[Patrick Bond teaches political economy at the Wits University School of Governance in Johannesburg.]

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