Demanding a ‘rightful share’? ‘Custom’, law and distributive claims on South Africa’s rural mining frontier – Fellows’ seminar by Sonwabile Mnwana

4 October 2019

“South Africa’s post-apartheid state, despite nationalising all mineral resources, has failed to ensure that the benefits of mining accrue to the historically excluded Black population and to local communities where the industry’s operations occur,” said Sonwabile Mnwana of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Fort Hare. “Benefits of mining for local communities and the rural poor, in general, are miniscule. Mining has led to land dispossession and loss of livelihoods on the platinum belt. In communal areas, local residents who are also customary land rights holders, have no right to withhold consent for mining or other development.”

STIAS visiting scholar Sonwabile Mnwana during his seminar on 1 October 2019

Mnwana’s project specifically explores the distributive struggles in the platinum-rich traditional authority areas in South Africa’s North West province but he hopes that the work can contribute to global debates on state-driven distributive measures and limited grassroots benefits from Africa’s mineral resources. Mnwana has been involved with this ethnographic research for about 12 years beginning with his PhD work. This work will result in a book.

“The role of the mining industry at a local level has so far received limited empirical focus,” he said. “This is ironic because mining positions itself as an agent of local development through its social corporate investment programmes. There has also not been a detailed focus on how the poor themselves imagine distribution and development. Most studies limit the ‘voice’ of the poor. This study seeks to contribute towards addressing this impasse by a detailed analysis of the rural-based platinum industry.”

“The rapid expansion of mining into the former ‘homeland’ areas, over the past two decades, has produced new struggles in rural South Africa,” he said. “The dwindling of gold meant that platinum mining has expanded and risen in value – it’s the biggest mining frontier.”

“What is unique about this area is that most of these mining projects are on communal land under tribal chiefs – land that used to fall under the former homeland,” he added. “More and more land that used to be farmland is disappearing under the mine dumps. You often see village cattle foraging along the fences.”

But the ‘fight’ for land in this area has a long history. When the Dutch settlers arrived they encountered a dry terrain and small, very spread out groups of mostly Tswana people who were easily defeated by settlers with guns. Land was demarcated into farms and parcelled off to white owners.

“By the late 1880s many Africans were living on white-owned farms as tenants and sharecroppers,” said Mnwana.

But some did enter the colonial land market as owners “usually via white intermediaries and at great risk of losing their purchase”.

These land purchases had to be registered in the name of a tribal unit under a chief. The buying process was difficult because many were neither numerate nor literate and had to depend on missionaries and others. Swindling was not uncommon, state officials were not sympathetic to African buyers and the purchases often took years.

“Mineral rights were also separated from surface rights. So mineral rights were not sold to Africans in most cases,” said Mnwana.

“Quite often, these were distinct land-buying syndicates of farmers – not ethnically or culturally homogeneous. At times, they didn’t even necessarily speak the same language but were forced to be part of a tribal unit to register land often under a state-appointed chief. This made the tribal authorities more powerful.”

The various Land Acts from 1913 onwards and the creation in the 1950s of legalised segregation meant that African institutions of property holding were further ignored and the focus on chiefs was strengthened. All of this was further complicated with the expansion of platinum mining from the 1960s. Mineral rights, where held, were held under state custodianship, land was fenced off and often the chiefs received the royalties.

“Resistance to the chiefs’ abuse of power goes back to the 1950s,” said Mnwana. “Royalties were paid into the so-called development account of the tribe which were kept by the homeland government on behalf of the traditional authority.”

From the early 2000s, the ANC government determined to nationalise minerals and introduce state custodianship. They encouraged communities receiving royalties to convert them into shares/equity which meant they didn’t get money directly. Although in some cases, chiefs remained wealthy. As an example, local chiefs through community mining revenues financed the soccer stadium built in Rustenburg for the 2010 World Cup.

“Many people feel that nationalisation of minerals left the communities that own the land empty handed. At the point where royalties could have benefitted them, the state took them away. Leading to the emergence of more radical exclusive demands.”

“This has led to significant struggles in which people have died as well as lengthy court battles.”

“Ordinary villagers make radical demands – for direct cash payments – that are rooted in private group ‘ownership’ of land and mineral resources,” said Mnwana. “Most of these struggles take the form of custom where claimants articulate claims based on customary law and land rights. But we encounter different versions of culture and history depending on which group claims.”

Some of the questions that Mnwana is therefore interested in unpacking include: Which authority is recognised?; how is custom articulated?; who remembers?; where do you get and how do you look for custom?; what is the character of custom?; what is the legal status of custom?; how does custom shape the structure of power over resources?; and, which authority is recognised when giving compensation?

“Custom is not a new phenomenon but has its own dynamics in South Africa,” he said. “Custom, to some extent, has been distorted and used to crystallise power in the hands of traditional authorities.”

“I argue that, in the context of mining-led local conflict, custom and law are not only contested notions (and ‘spaces’), but also instruments of power and contestation,” he continued.

Mnwana is also interested in understanding the socio-economic aspects in more detail.

“Mining is supposed to be a development enterprise but people are being dispossessed. Mining has created a massive surplus, unemployed population in the platinum belt but many also reject working in the mines.”

“There is a strong sentiment that mine work is dangerous and not for them and many young people are moving to bigger cities.”

“History, custom and law have become tools of exclusion in the contest of conflict in South Africa’s rural mining frontier.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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