African Mines Remain Theatres For Foreign Operators

AFRICA is and for a long time will remain one of the major mining areas of the world and its position in the geography of global mining in terms of resources, production and trade appears quite strong.

However, this apparent strong position fails to adequately reflect the underlying reality.

Africa is the birthplace of mining activity with the oldest ever discovered mine that was operated more than 45 000 years ago located on an iron site in Swaziland.

Even at the beginning of European adventures into Africa there was evidence of fairly developed iron metallurgy.

Notwithstanding Africa’s undisputed pioneering mining and metallurgical tradition, its modern mineral story commenced with the diamond rush in Southern Africa at the end of the 19th century.

The decolonisation of Africa was partly motivated by a shared vision to democratise access to the continent’s vast resources by all its peoples and yet after more than 50 years of uhuru, attempts to challenge the hegemony of Western capital’s dominance of Africa’s resources have not succeeded.

The mining industry we see today in Africa is not a consequence of an accident of history but a direct result of the interplay between European state and non-state actors who in their wisdom decided to appropriate to themselves and their successors the continent’s rich heritage to the extent that we still have no significant indigenous challenge to the colonially-inherited positions and interests of international mining capital.

Unlike European colonisation of South America which was from the beginning linked to the exploitation of precious metals, gold and silver, Africa’s mercantilist capitalism was for centuries based on plundering human resources through the slave trade and mineral wealth was largely neglected.

Early in the 20th century, the whole continent of Africa with the exception of Ethiopia, was under colonial domination and, therefore, its mineral resources were franchised to private companies based on banking and industrial monopolies underpinned by capital conquests and in some instances on violent conquest by the European powers.

The independent adventurers who participated in the diamond rush of the 1870s in Southern Africa were supported and manipulated by British imperialism.

At this time, the main mining companies which were to dominate the African mining scene for the last 120 years were established — mainly Rio Tinto-Zinc, De Beers, Consolidated Gold Fields — with people like Rhodes playing a leading role as one of the founding fathers of African mining.

Rhodes, as his fellow Rand Lords, made huge profits from Africa’s rich mineral resources and there is no evidence of either any indigenous person ever being allowed by the colonial state to acquire wealth from mineral resources or such class of individuals faring any better in the post-colonial state.

In post-colonial Africa, the competition for exploiting Africa’s mineral wealth is now between European/American/Canadian/Australian and Chinese/Indian capital with indigenous Africans continually playing a marginal role.

Although cronyism is often frowned upon in post-colonial Africa, the colonial experience was characterised by close ties between Britain and European financial centres and the Rand Lords who gained power and prestige that has been seamlessly transmitted to their successors at the exclusion of indigenous people.

By the end of the 19th century, Rhodes who owned both De Beers and Gold Fields had founded the British South Africa Company (BSAC), a company that was to play a leading role in the colonisation of central Africa.

Until the mid-1920s when the British administration took over, BSAC ruled the territories of Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Truncated agreements with the local chiefs granted mining concessions to the BSAC in all the territories it ruled and such arrangements were readily confirmed by the British government.

Later, BSAC granted an exclusive licence to two mining enterprises owned by British, American and South African interests.

It was only in 1964 that the post-colonial Zambian government acquired the concession rights of BSAC against a compensation of £2 million.

However, the government of Zambia had nothing to show for its ownership of the copper mines suggesting a faulty line in the construction of a post-colonial mining strategy.

The pattern of granting mining rights whereby colonialism was organised by private mining companies with the support and on behalf of the imperial state was not limited to British Central and Southern Africa but was also applied to the Belgian Congo where the Katanga Mining Company was the ruler.

As we negotiate Africa’s future, it is important that we attempt to locate the role of indigenous monopolies in the quest to broaden and deepen empowerment.

Would it be harmful to Africa’s future if we created our own New Rand Lords to take the lead? What should be the role of the post-colonial state? What should also be the role of African citizens in the reconfiguration of the politics of African mining?

The political balkanisation of the continent inherited from the colonial state presents one of the major challenges that post-colonial Africa faces especially in the contemporary era marked by the setting up of great politico-economic entities like the EU and the modernisation of China and India.

The fortunes of African geology and history located the main deposits in countries of limited economic and demographic size raising the question of the significance of a fragmented Africa on the global stage in the face of homogenous consuming zones such as India, Brazil, EU, China, USA, Canada or Australia.

It must and should be accepted that for the foreseeable future, Africa will probably remain a strategic theatre for external operators and many conditions must be realised before it can become an autonomous actor with its own strategies.

A large share of African mineral resources are located in South Africa which was a colonial and racist regional power block prior to 1994 and, therefore, any meaningful change to the character and content of an inclusive mineral development strategy will necessarily have to start by creating new Rand Lords supported by the new republic just as colonial capital was supported by imperialism.

It can be argued that as long there are no serious internal political and economic changes in Africa towards homogenisation, the prospect of any attempt to challenge the historically acquired hegemony over African mineral resources by a few South Africa-based oligopolies and the newly industrialising countries like China succeeding is remote.

By Mutumwa Mawere: A Zimbabwean born businessman based in South Africa.