Real solutions needed for mining in South Africa

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - 14:32

Leadership is about falling in love with the people you serve and the people falling in love with you.

- Joyce Banda

This Valentine’s day, we would do well to consider these words of the former President of Malawi. Last week saw both the Mining Indaba - a gathering of governments and corporations discussing how to expand the mining sector in Africa - and tumultuous scenes at the South African State of the Nation Address take place in Cape Town. Judging by these events, the state of leadership in South Africa and beyond is poor.

Leaders weren’t the only ones to convene in Cape Town last week. Mining-affected communities and their allies convened in the eighth annual Alternative Mining Indaba. Community members and citizens had stories to tell - stories of rape, murder, war, forced displacement and other human rights violations. These crimes are awful enough, but are made even more awful by the fact that they are a continuation of a long history of crimes in the mining sector - going back to colonial times - and that they are preventable.

These crimes have been documented again and again. Yet Africa’s leaders insist on continuing the process of carving up the continent to be given to the worst elements of global capitalism at deflated prices to support manufacturing and job creation in other places.

Einstein’s famous definition of madness bears repeating here - doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.

Sometimes our demands for accountability for crimes committed can feed into the cycle of madness. Restitution for wrongs committed, improved living conditions, and better access to services, while all laudable goals, are band-aid solutions. Sometimes we get so caught up in these necessary but incomplete remedies we forget to think beyond them, to real solutions that would ensure development and human rights for all. Such solutions might include:

1) Keep it in the ground. Many developed countries developed without natural resource extraction and many developed countries that do have natural resources choose not to develop them as fully as they could. We know from studying the history of developed countries that there are very few countries that developed through natural resource exploitation. At the least, countries must diversify away from the mining sector which has failed to provide decent livelihoods and provide human rights for all.

2) Focus on strategies that create more and better jobs. History shows us that export-driven development in general means moving up the value chain away from raw materials and towards products with more and more value added. This is also a strategy for creating more and better jobs for all.

3) Tax it and give it away. Given the amount of wealth being hoarded by the super rich in South Africa and globally, governments need to find ways to capture more of that wealth through taxation and through policies like maximum wages that would limit the amount of wealth that can be hoarded in the future. That money should be given to people - perhaps starting with women - through some kind of national cash transfer programme - whether the universal basic income that countries like Finland are experimenting with or the Employment Guarantee schemes that countries like India and Brazil use.

If these solutions sound radical, consider that we live at a time when 8 billionaires control 50% of the world’s wealth. That’s a level of inequality that would have seemed obscene even in ancient times. Deep rooted problems require radical solutions. If leaders in South Africa and around the continent would have the love of the people, they would do well to remember the words of another African leader, Patrice Lumumba, who said of colonial leaders, “all means are good if they help them possess the riches.”