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Precious Metals II: A Systemic Inequality


Twenty-two years after the election of the first democratic state and 14 years after a new mining regime was legislated in South Africa, the community of Mapela, on the outskirts of Mokopane in Limpopo, are still trapped in a system that has by most accounts, continued the legacy of apartheid and dispossession well after the promised liberation from an oppressive yolk.

In this report we argue that this reality is not an oversight or a merely the slow maturation of a long term liberation project, but rather a systemic crisis which permeates out from the very mechanisms and institutions introduced to overcome the inequality of the past.

This report seeks to answer the question of why those who used to harvest and eat, are today less secure and increasingly unable to claim and exercise their human rights.

This study was initiated by ActionAid South Africa (AASA) as a follow up to the study conducted in the villages of Mokopane in 2008. During that study AASA found a number of human rights violations against the people of Mapela/Langa villages, and who live in the shadows of the most profitable platinum mine in the world— Anglo American’s Mogalakena Platinum Mine.

As a response to our study, and following an investigation by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Anglo Platinum accused AASA of producing the report from a “particular ideological standpoint”.  Also in response to our report the SAHRC, in their report on the human rights situation facing the communities of Mapela/Langa, the incumbent chairperson of the SAHRC, Jody Kollapen, argued that the “impact of business cannot always be determined at one point in time like a snapshot, but is often more accurately reflected over a period of time.”

It was for this reason that AASA sought to engage a credible academic institution and researchers to provide a balanced and nuanced account of the impacts of Anglo`s operations on the communities of Mokopane. The findings by Dr. Sonwabile Manana and Dr Farai Mtero confirm our concern that not only is the mining regime in South Africa grossly skewed against the interests of communities who host mining operations, but also confirms that over the intervening period, the conditions for the communities of Mapela/Langa have not improved. In most instances the conditions have deteriorated, while our constitutionally mandated institutions sit by and allow the continued violations of human rights.

The study by the Society Work and Development Institute (SWOP) of the University of Witwatersrand, which forms part of the Mining and Rural Transformation in Southern Africa (MARTISA) research project was generously funded by the Ford Foundation through its Human Rights and Governance Programme with additional support from ActionAid South Africa and the Open Society Foundation (South Africa). The full study is not reproduced here, instead we have used key findings from the study to make a broader case about the systemic and institutional nature of the violations experienced by host communities generally, and the Mapela/Langa community in particular.

According to the SWOP, the report focussed on livelihoods, food security and environmental rights. They also investigated the efforts by local communities to defend and reclaim these rights in the face of mining expansion. SWOP connected these broader issues to specific sub-themes such as, customary rights and traditional authority; multiple and differentiated livelihoods; and post-resettlement experiences. The study took place between March and May 2015 in four villages near to the Mogalakwena Mine in the Mapela area. They used different research methods, including a small-scale survey, life histories, organisational and institutional interviews and focus group discussions to explore the highlighted themes.

Key Findings:

Evidence presented by the ethnographic material suggests that many people in the study villages have lost access to land as a result of mining, particularly ploughing fields and grazing land. Land dispossession also connects to loss of access to other natural resources, including wild fruits, trees, natural herbs and firewood. 

  • In the villages located close to the mine, there are strong complaints about the environmental impacts of the mine. Air pollution and damage to houses are among the main complaints.
  • Intermittent water supply is a challenge in all four study villages. Many residents associate this challenge with the impact of the mine.
  • Ethnographic material also revealed that families that were relocated by the mine in 2007 have been separated from the graves of their loved ones. The issue of grave relocations is prominent, particularly the complaint by residents that the relocated graves were reburied far away from the new village. Some residents also claim that the mine did not relocate all the graves. They argue that there are still graves of their loved ones in the area occupied by the Mogalakwena mine. As a result, many members of the families that were relocated feel displaced and culturally violated. 
  • Relocation has led to marginalisation of other social categories, particularly the youth and women. This results from the historical structure of customary land rights in Mapela and the way in which the mine interpreted these rights when distributing its relocation benefits. When distributing compensation to the relocated families, Anglo Platinum (Amplats) focused on, and mainly dealt with the heads of households. The historical structure of customary land rights seems to have favoured the elders – mainly male – household heads. As a result, adult household members that were not favoured by custom to hold land rights were marginalised and displaced when their families were relocated by the mine.
  • Evidence on livelihood activities in the villages of Mapela, suggests that land-based livelihoods have historically played an important role in the livelihoods and sustenance of rural households in the area. In contemporary times, the central role of land-based livelihoods has been undercut by the mine-related land displacements.
  • The adverse impact on agricultural activities in these villages is acutely prominent with respect to the cultivation of large ploughing fields which has virtually collapsed while cultivation of homestead gardens has invariably shrunk as suggested by the sharp decline in the range and diversity of crops grown on this type of land. This happens alongside the shortage of grazing land which has constrained livestock production in the area.
  • The livelihood crisis experienced by rural households in the Mapela area, to a large extent, manifests itself in the inability of rural households to grow their own food which has resulted in widespread food insecurity. The attempts by rural households to contest for and reclaim their rights revolve around the centrality of land and agriculture in the local agrarian economy and how mining activities have undermined local food security.

The findings presented in this study connect to the grammar and agency of community resistance to the mine. Our findings suggest that resistance in the Mapela area takes different forms. These include individual residents’ continued ‘illegal’ occupation and cultivation of the land inside Amplats' mineral rights area, and refusal to relocate by some families and even episodes of community protest action. The various forms of resistance signify the ways in by which village residents in Mapela reclaim the rights they have lost due to mining expansion. 

In strengthening our case for the Mokopane case study to be read as a systemic failure, we invited Dr. Sarah Malotane Henkeman, an independent conflict and social justice researcher and a Senior Staff Associate of the Centre of Criminology in the Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town (UCT), to test our assumptions in this regard. In her written response to our request, Dr. Henkeman states that “[a]fter studying the ActionAid document on Mokopane, I agree that there is a case to be made for a combination of symbolic violence, structural violence, and structural human rights violations; and how this combination of micro-macro factors play out in the everyday, lived experiences of people in Mokopane.”

AASA believes that the findings of this research, which indicates a livelihoods and food security crisis in a once self-sustaining community, seven years after our human rights institutions were called upon to intervene, reflects much deeper and systemic crises. We hope that through this report we garner the attention of the key stakeholders and the public regarding the systemic failures which led to this continuing violation of human rights and on-going multi-faceted crises. We hope that the values of our Constitution and respect for human life and dignity will eventually trump the sole pursuit of profits and that and the institutions exposed in this report are held to account.