South Africa’s Gold Mines: Radiation Sickness and Lead and Arsenic Poisoning

Toxic City: The Cost of Gold Mining in South Africa

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

This documentary exposes the high level of uranium and heavy metal contamination in South African townships adjacent to giant gold mining slag heaps. South Africa’s mountains of toxic waste have been building up for decades – their gold mines produced 2.7 tons of toxic slag in 2017 alone.

Still largely white-owned, the country’s gold mines produce only 5 grams of gold for every ton of ore they process. They leave behind untreated slag with large quantities of iron, manganese, nickel, arsenic, lead, cobalt and uranium.

What’s most worrisome, of course, is the 600,000 tons of uranium contained in toxic dunes surrounding Johannesburg. This results in local radiation counts as high as those of the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine.

French investigative journalist Martin Boudot tests the hair of goats dying of radiation sickness and children afflicted with neurolodevelopmental disorders and other chronic illnesses. According to lab results, the latter suffer from lead and arsenic poisoning.

Thus far, South Africa’s corrupt ANC government has done absolutely nothing to regulate the open disposal of toxic slag by gold mines – nor to investigate the health problems of mainly Black township residents adjacent to toxic sites.

Local activists recently lost a court case against the gold mines because (owing to cost) they failed to present lab evidence of adverse health effects. They hope to reopen the case with the lab results Boudot has provided them.

The film, which can’t be embedded for copyright reasons, can be viewed for free at the Al Jazeera website: Toxic City

Looting Africa

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth

Tom Burgis

Harper Collins (2017)

Book Review

This book centers around something global economists refer to as the “Dutch curse.” In 1959, the discovery of oil in the Netherlands led to massive unemployment outside the oil industry. A big increase in dollars generated by oil exports caused major inflation in the local currency. This made imports cheaper than locally produced goods, shutting down hundreds of Dutch businesses and putting thousands out of work.

It’s typical of mineral and oil/gas mining everywhere (including here in New Plymouth) that these industries require vast capital investment but employ only small numbers of workers. According to Burgis, it was the “Dutch curse” that resulted in Russian’s oil-fueled criminal oligarchy prior to the rise of Putin. As the continent richest in natural resources, Africa, which has been ruthlessly exploited by multinational corporations, has a severe case of the “Dutch curse.”

Although multinationals pay far less than market value for oil, gas and precious minerals, they pay corrupt puppet dictators enough that they don’t need to tax their citizens. Burgis maintains this absence of taxation results in a lack of accountability to their citizenry. Instead of holding leaders to account for their failure to provide basic infrastructure, citizens of “resource states” are far more likely to angle for their share of the loot. Retaining power becomes a simple matter of maintain elaborate patronage (payoff) systems and harsh military/security networks.

Burgis also refutes the myth that Africa’s multiple civil wars stem from tribal and religious conflict. Most African wars are pure resource wars (often triggered by CIA and French and British intelligence), with the conflict used as a cover for resource smuggling and even lower net cost to multinationals.

The US government has attempted to crack down on its own corporations via stricter enforcement (since 2000) of the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and a section of the 2010 Dodd Frank Act that prohibits the the purchase of Coltan* from armed rebel groups. The new law, which has done little to reduce Coltan smuggling, has opened the door to a Chinese monopoly on the Coltan market.

The Looting Machine presents a detailed country by country analysis, as well as an examination of the Chinese company responsible for most private investment in Africa (there’s less publicly available information about investment by state-owned Chinese companies). Both engage in far more infrastructure development than Western agents do.

  • Angola – principle export oil, with 70% of oil ventures owned by Hong Kong billionaire Sam Pa, operating as Queensway Group or Chinese International Fund. Half of Angolan residents get by on less than $1.25/day.
  • Congo – second most important produce of Coltan outside of Australia, also gold, tin, tungsten and diamonds. Residents live on less than $1.00/day.
  • Nigeria – oil and gas. Cotton/textile industry that flourished in 1980s shut down (causing mass unemployment) by continuous flood of smuggled Chinese counterfeit textiles. Sam Pa and the French oil company Total have teamed up to challenge Shell’s longstanding monopoly on Nigerian oil.
  • South Africa – rich gold, diamond and platinum exports financed the creation of the apartheid state, in which a tiny white minority controlled the entire economy. Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, this minority has been joined by a handful of Black entrepreneurs.
  • Botswana – diamonds. Somewhat protected from “Dutch curse” by the creation of value added industries that cut and polish their diamonds prior to export.
  • Guinea – among world’s richest reserves of iron and aluminum. Bought out by Sam Pa as a result of Western sanctions.
  • Niger – rich in uranium and the world’s poorest country. France previously held monopoly on Niger’s uranium industry, being replaced by Queensway group based on agreement to invest in infrastructure development and employ local labor. (In most countries, Chinese investors import Chinese labor.)
  • Ghana – gold. Financed by Chinese Investment Fund after IMF tried to impose structural adjustment conditions** to refinance a World Bank Loan.
  • Zimbabwe – diamonds, platinum, nickel, gold. Mugabe used revenues from export industries to finance particularly brutal security force. Diamond industry bought out by Queensway as direct result of Western sanctions.

*Coltan is a rare precious metal in high demand for cellphones and laptops.

**IMF structural adjustment conditions typically require debtor companies to privatize state owned industries, legislate deep cuts in social services and accept extensive foreign investment as a condition of receiving World Bank loans.

 

 

 

 

Economic Apartheid in South Africa

 

AmaZulu: The Children of Heaven

Directed by Hanan Majid and Richard York
(2006)

Film Review

AmaZulu is about Mr Mtshali, the inspiring principal of Velabahleke High School in Umlazi Township in Kwazulu Natal province (near Durban).

Although racial apartheid ended in 1994, economic apartheid persists to the present day. The abject poverty in Umlazi Township is a prime example. The film profiles a dozen or so students, most of whom live in simple shacks without electricity or running water.

Most come from single parent families disrupted by HIV, alcohol and other side effects of poverty. For many the midday meal at school is their only food.

As the filmmakers make clear, many of the students turn to Mtshali the principal for emotional support and parental guidance they don’t receive at home.

What I find most striking about the documentary is the number of students who talk about the importance of education for improving their circumstances. For most, their primary dream is to earn enough money to provide their mothers with a house (as opposed to a shack) to live in.

Third world poverty is always the result of third world dispossession – driving indigenous people off their land and depriving them of any means of supporting themselves. “Development” in the third world is a euphemism for confiscation and privatization of publicly owned resources.

 

Grassroots Musicle

In Defense of Life

Gaia Foundation (2016)

Film Review

The whole world is inspired by the courage and stamina of indigenous protestors at Standing Rock.

In Defense of Life is about four other successful grassroots campaigns in South Africa, the Philippines, Romania and Colombia to block multinational mining companies from destroying their communities. Interviews with some of the activists shed important insights into their motivations and organizing strategies.

In Kuazulu Natal (South Africa), local residents organized to block a coal mining company with plans to destroy six villages by blasting for coal.

In Nuevo (Philippines), the indigenous Ifoga people organized to block Oceania Gold from blowing the top off a mountain to mine for gold and copper.

In Sosia Montana (Romania), locals organized to stop the Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources from blowing up mountains to create four open pit mines. This would have resulted in the forcible displacement of hundreds of residents, as well as the contamination of local water supplies with the cyanide used in gold extraction.

In Yaigoje Apaporis (Colombia), indigenous groups blocked the Canadian mining company Cosigo Resources from destroying the sacred La Libertad waterfall.

South Africa’s Economic Apartheid

Some Children Are More Equal than Others

Stefan Gottfried (2015)

Film Review

This film is about de facto segregation in South African schools – a major factor in making South African more unequal (two rich people control more wealth than the bottom 50% of the population) than when schools were first “de-racialized” with the end of apartheid in 1994.

At present South African schools are divided by parental status and income, rather than race. Urban professionals send their children to “English” public schools in the cities. In contrast, poor township residents have no choice but to send their kids to free Bantu schools. Township students are denied entrance to “English” schools – they are always “full” – even when parents can pay the substantial school fees. Owing to officials’ fears white parents will take their kids off to private schools, the latter are never turned away.

In “English” schools, 98% of students complete high school and 80% go on to complete a bachelor’s degree. Only 50% graduate from township schools, only 11% go on to complete a bachelor’s degree and only 1% receive a vocational qualification. These grim statistics translate into a 50% unemployment rate of black youths 18-24 and an overall illiteracy rate of 51%.

The teachers and education officials interviewed in this film blame the deplorable state of South African schools on endemic corruption. The shocking physical state of the leaky, ramshackle, toiletless township schools certainly lends credibility to this viewpoint.

The Mexican-American Singer Who Inspired the Anti-Apartheid Movement

sugarman

Searching for Sugarman

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul (2012)

Film Review

I watched an intriguing documentary on Maori TV this week about a group of white anti-apartheid musicians who decide to investigate the background of an obscure Detroit singer who became the hero of the white anti-apartheid movement. Prior to watching the film, I was totally unaware of South Africa’s white anti-apartheid movement.

During the early 1970s, apartheid South Africa was a virtual police state. White and black activists who spoke out against apartheid (or censorship, police violence, death squads, etc) faced three year prison terms. Those who engaged in street protests faced even harsher penalties.  According to the musicians interviewed in the film, Sexto Rodriguez’s iconoclastic music gave a whole generation of white South Africans the courage to resist the oppressive regime they lived under.

An anti-establishment Afrikaans band was the first to widely popularize Rodriguez’s music. Prior to 1994, it mainly circulated underground as specific songs were specifically banned by the apartheid regime. Despite being virtually invisible in the US, his two albums eventually sold 500,000 copies in South Africa.

Despite his immense popularity, South African musicians and activists knew absolutely nothing about Rodgriguez’s background. In fact, there were rumors circulating his career had ended when he committed suicide during a performance (in one version he shot himself in the head, in another he set himself on fire).

After months of investigation, music historian Craig Bartholomew-Strydom eventually learned that Rodriguez was still alive working in housing demolition in Detroit. He and other Rodriguez fans arranged to bring him to South African in 1998 for a revival concert attended by 20,000 people.

Following the concert he returns to his quiet working class life in New York, though he eventually performs six more concerts.

Hits (in South Africa) serve as the soundtrack for the film. Despite his strident anti-establishment views, he’s clearly an extremely accomplished singer-songwriter. Thus I guess it’s no surprise, his music was suppressed* in the US.

For copyright reasons, I’m unable to embed the film. However it can be viewed free (for the next few weeks) at the Maori TV website:

http://www.maoritelevision.com/tv/shows/tuesday-festival-documentaries/S01E001/searching-sugarman


*In the US, anti-capitalist music isn’t overtly censored. Prior to the Internet and YouTube, people never heard it if record companies chose not to promote it.

South Africa’s 2012 Miners Massacre

 

Miners Shot Down

By Rehand Desai (2014)

Film Review

Miners Shot Down follows the Marikana Commission of Inquiry investigation into the government massacre of striking platinum miners in August 2012. Thanks to the public investigation, filmmakers gained access to secret police files and footage that totally demolishes their claim that they fired at the miners in self-defense. In total 112 miners were shot. Thirty-four of them died.

The documentary paints an extremely ugly picture of the worsening economic apartheid which followed the end of political apartheid in 1994. Prior to their 2012 strike, miners at the Lonmin platinum mine lived in abject poverty, earning an average wage of 5,000 South African rand ($US 500) a week. The 2012 strike was a wildcat strike, owing to the refusal of the corrupt Nation Union of Miners (NUM) to support miners’ demand for higher wages.

Eyewitness testimony and documentary and forensic evidence presented to the Marikana Commission leave no doubt whatsoever that orders to fire on the miners came from the highest level of government.

Among the more damning evidence is the decision by the Commissioner of Police to supply police with four mortuary vans, in addition to 4,000 rounds of ammunition. Police footage shows them ordering protesting strikers to disperse, boxing them in with razor wire and armored vehicles, demanding journalists leave and shooting down fleeing miners.

Eyewitnesses report the police repeatedly shot strikers as they were surrendering.

Following the massacre the strike lasted another four weeks, and Lonmin miners eventually won pay increases of 7-22%. The Marikana massacre prompted 100,000 miners to undertake wildcat strikes across Africa.

The Marikana Commission report, issued in June 2015, largely exonerates key government figures implicated in the massacre, and victims families plan to the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

270 miners have been charged with murder based on events at Marikana. No police officers have been charged.