The primary objectives of the Minerals Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA), which governs the mining Industry, are to:

  • Promote equitable access to the nations mineral and petroleum resources.
  • Substantially and meaningfully expand opportunities for Historically Disadvantaged Persons.
  • Promote employment and advance the social and economic welfare of all South Africans.

With this in mind, one would assume that after 15 years of implementation that significant strides would have been made in bringing these objectives closer to realisation. Yet it appears that after all this time, access to the nations minerals are controlled with the intent and purpose, not of allowing greater access, but of protecting monopoly control of the sector.

Approximately 31 companies, with a combined market capitalisation of R578 Billion as at 31 August 2016, control almost 80% of the entire South African Mining Market. While this is some improvement on the six mining houses which dominated the sector during the end of Apartheid, the overall thrust of the sector is still one of monopoly control, with a handful of executives able to dictate the general policy direction.

The majority of shareholders in these 31 companies are not South Africans according to the Department of Mineral Resources and furthermore the DMR contends that this number is significantly smaller when considering how many Historically Disadvantaged Persons hold shares in these companies.

While the Chamber of Mines disputes the DMR numbers, the fact remains that however one portrays the numbers, the vast majority of South Africans have not been afforded “equitable access to the nation’s mineral resources”. On balance, the policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) which has become such a bone of contention among the elites, who are the only ones who have any hope of accessing the shares, has benefitted only the connected few while deepening the inherited class inequalities of our society.

For the over 30 million South Africans living in poverty, the question of whether a black South African or a white South African owns shares in mining companies has become a red herring that detracts from the real pressing issue of putting food on the table.

The mining sector, far from providing equitable access has been shedding jobs over the last 2 decades and has seen declines in employment levels from its peak of almost 1 million people employed,  to under 450 000 direct jobs today.

The mining sector continues to shrink in terms of its benefit to South Africans and increasingly the profits from its activities are leaving our shores either directly as dividends or indirectly as part of the global scourge of Base Erosion and Profit shifting.

Thus, despite the noble objectives of the MPRDA, its mechanisms to achieve this and its overall outcomes have not been consistent with its objectives. Instead the overall trajectory of the industry has been to consolidate monopolistic control and to concentrate ownership and benefits in the hands of a few.

As a direct consequence of the historical trend of inequality, where more and more wealth is concentrated in fewer hands and with more and more people falling into poverty, unemployment and desperation, the turn to informal mining has become a livelihood option that hungry families can no longer ignore.

Yet the very same MPRDA, which nobly sets out to ensure equitable access to the nations minerals, while substantially and meaningfully expanding opportunities to promote employment and advance the social and economic welfare of all South Africans, is the very basis that government uses to criminalise the poor and marginalised.

In Kimberly for example, where thousands of unemployed people have been in a long standing struggle to “expand their opportunities” to eke out a living from the “nations minerals” in order to “improve their social and economic welfare”, the DMR and the Provincial Government, at the insistence of DeBeers and Ekapa Minerals, have led the informal miners on a merry dance with the promise that they will be allocated land and permits to mine legally.

Ekapa and De Beers have also been caught out in lies made under oath to the courts and most recently Ekapa has created a situation of violence where they demanded that Police forcibly and illegally remove informal miners from disputed land. In the process at least 27 miners were shot and some arrested on trumped up charges.

The state, under the leadership of the Hawks and the DMR, instead of finding ways to uphold their constitutional duty to provide equitable access to the nations minerals  have been preparing  a security response which includes the intimidation and arrest of otherwise law abiding citizens who are merely claiming their right to work. Numerous threats have been made to the miners that the SAPS do not want another Marikana.

The inhumanity of a state that protects the interest of capital and the elites before it protects the rights of its citizens is amplified by the economics that drive the violence of denial and impoverishment.

According to Mining Weekly, Ekapa Minerals expects to produce diamonds at a rate of 700 000 carats a year in the first three years, generating revenue of R920-million per annum, while the thousands of miners desperate to put a plate of food on the table will hardly generate a thousand carrots from the waste and land that are peripheral to Ekapa`s economic well-being.

The greed that allows corporates to deploy lawyers and the state to keep hungry people from feeding their families, should be a blot on the South African conscience and should be a bad memory from our past. And yet it is all too real today.

The Chamber of Mines has estimated that informal miners generate approximately R6billion annually. As a percentage of the total revenue generated by the industry this amounts to less than 0.1% and employs well over 30 000 individuals. There can be no rational reason why we continue to deny hungry unemployed people a fair chance at earning a living.

Through collective action and with the right spirit of ensuring human dignity above all else, we can devise safe and sustainable ways to incorporate informal miners into the legislative and regulatory environment.

It is time that we stop protecting the wealthy elites and start living up to our constitutional obligations by reclaiming our humanity and our shared obligations to overcome the brutal history of colonialism and elite accumulation of wealth.