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Mining in South Africa

The re-election of 30-year old Julius Malema as president of the youth league of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has raised concerns among many people with an economic interest in the country.  Apart from his intemperate outbursts and juvenile flip-flopping, Malema causes the greatest dismay with his insistence that the state should nationalise the mines and redistribute agricultural land.  These policies are based on a strict reading of the Freedom Charter, a seminal document in the history of the ANC.

The 1955 Congress of the People gathered grievances from the oppressed masses around the country, and formulated responses to these.  Chief among them were: “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole” and: “The land shall be shared among those who work it.” These two demands were never included in the Constitution of the ‘new’ South Africa.  However there remains a justifiable hankering among the majority of people for greater access to the mineral wealth and land from which they were alienated during the colonial period.  It is to this populist sentiment that Julius Malema plays.

The spectre of Zimbabwe-style land-grabs, awards of the wealthiest farms to cronies of the régime, and consequent food instability when the lands are worked unproductively, sends shivers down the spine of farmers in South Africa.  However, more international worries are caused by talk of nationalisation of the country’s mines.  Foreign companies have invested heavily in the mining industry, extracting precious metals, minerals and ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and taking billions of Rands of profit offshore.

The mines kick-started South Africa’s industrial economy, providing direct employment to more than a million people over their 130 years of operation.  They have also wreaked inestimable environmental havoc with unprotected asbestos dumps, acid water seepage, contamination of aquifers and rivers, airborne pollutants near to the most densely populated urban centres.  While the multinational mining companines have left only empty shells in South Africa, the citizens will foot the bill to clean up the mess.  In more regulated societies, laws concerning environmental protection are more rigorously enforced.  In Africa it seems to be a free-for-all.

The benefits of Africa’s embarassing mineral wealth are enjoyed in Sydney, Toronto, London, Frankfurt, Singapore and Brussels, to name a few.  Local elites also profit from the operation of mines, and there is no question that advantages do “trickle down,” albeit slowly, to some local communities.  However, the question to ask is: “at what cost?”

Is the common good best served by mining with its deleterious effects on the environment?  Are the asbestosis, silicosis, and pulmonary diseases worth the benefit of living close to the mines?  Do the advantages of mineral income outweigh the poisioning of rivers and consequent killing of aquatic life?  Are the indelible scars on the landscape worth the few decades of wealth generated by surface mines – not only in Africa, but also in Canada’s tar sands and Western Australian and German coalfields?  Often these costs and benefits are incommensurable.

Perhaps Julius Malema is not too far off the mark in agitating for nationalisation of the mines.  On this point he is well within the lines of thinking of Gaudium es Spes 69 recalling the Creator’s design that the earth and all it contains should be shared fairly by all humanity.

Peter Knox SJ  ( is a member of the Jesuit Institute in South Africa (see ). He teaches systematic theology at St Augustine College in Johannesburg and St John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria.  In 2008 he published AIDS, Ancestors and Salvation (Paulines: Nairobi), a reworking of his doctoral thesis.