10 August 2010


Adventure and abundant natural resource brought the early European settlers to Africa - and the same goes for many subsequent generations of fortune hunters to this very day.

The benefits that have accrued to the indigenous peoples from the five centuries of rapine since the Portuguese first settled west central Africa are subjects of intense and wide spread debate in modern Africa.   But undoubtedly, one consequence of Europe's lust for wealth has been lives of extreme nastiness, brutality and brevity for countless Africans.

The early Portuguese in Angola set the general tone, exploiting the most obvious resource: African flesh. Some four million Africans were exported as slaves to the Americas. It has been estimated that another nine million died during the march to the coast from the interior and while waiting to be herded on to ships.

Portugal and the Roman Catholic Church, which closely followed the flag, argued that the slave trade was spiritually beneficial.  Both insisted that slaves be baptized before crossing the Atlantic in chains. On the wharfs at Luanda, the Angolan capital, as late as 1870 there could still be seen a marble chair in which the bishop had sat and baptized by boatloads the poor unfortunates.  The Portuguese collected their tax, the clergyman his fee, and the Africans had their introduction to the white man's religion and civilization. There were also vast forests and immense riches waiting to be exploited, with labour provided by such Africans who had not been shipped to Brazil and the US. 

South African Experience

Mineral wealth was the foundation of colonial economies throughout Africa.  Minerals financed South Africa's racial supremacy, first under the British and then the Afrikaners.  Now, under 'globalisation' in the post apartheid era it finances a new 'economic' apartheid of corrupt elites and a destitute majority.
Before the gold rush to Johannesburg there was the diamond rush to Kimberley, in Tswana and Griqua territory, which the British immediately annexed upon realizing there was a diamond pipe which would prove the richest in the world.   The Kimberley diamond pipe is thought to descend nearly 100 miles into the Earth.
Thus began the black labour system that would be the necessary concomitant of European and American exploitation of Africa's mineral riches. 

The British created, in 1872, the pass system that would become the method of white control of black labourers and their families.  The origins of apartheid lay here. Today the migrant worker market is still under the control of the mines, whereby they import large groups of foreign workers to destabilize local communities in order to weaken their unity.

South Africa still has some gold riches, but the great mining companies now have to dig ever deeper and at ever greater expense to reach the lodes. Some mines are so deep that workers at the rock faces wear special waistcoats packed with ice to counteract the heat.  Although safety standards have improved, African miners still die in great numbers.

As South Africa's accessible gold reserves began to dwindle, a new source of immense wealth in the form of platinum has begun to be exploited in another great arc, sweeping 300 miles from west to east, some 50 miles north of Johannesburg along the 'Merensky reef' .

There lies around 90% of the world's known reserves of platinum and related metals such as  palladium, ruthenium, and rhodium (PGMs). The reserves may be enough to sustain current explosive rates of production for less than100 years. 

Open cast mining techniques that would never be allowed in the developed world are being applied in almost every new mine popping up like a disease on the landscape, destroying the best agricultural land and contaminating precious underground water.

The platinum group of metals recently overtook gold as South Africa's biggest mineral earner.  Even so, the value brought to the country as a whole is a tiny fraction of what it should be.
The mineral exploitation has become highly mechanized and automated. It provides more jobs in the rest of the world than it does in South Africa.

The PGMs are scattered amongst various tribal groups whom the exploiters find ever so easy to corrupt with lavish profits for unelected tribal 'chiefs' in exchange for loss of rights and misery for the masses.

This scale of destruction is new to the mining world. The platinum rush is a race against time before the people awaken to the fact that their habitat is being irreversibly destroyed.

Whilst South Africa  has proved a true Eldorado for the rest of the world, the prize for the local majority has been deepening poverty and environmental ruin.

Plunder of Congo

Two thousand miles to the north, the Congo, a million square miles of rich forests, fertile land, abundant water and exquisite wildlife, sat above fabled riches - gold, diamonds, cobalt, oil, uranium, tin and copper.

Belgium 's King Leopold II won control of an area the size of western Europe in1885 and embarked on three decades of plunder from which the Congo has not recovered.  It became a forced labour camp where Leopold's thugs forced people from more than 200 ethnic groups to extract rubber, hardwoods and ivory to build fabulous wealth in Brussels while impoverishing their own  native health.  "We must obtain a slice of this magnificent African cake and diffuse the light of civilization among the natives," Leopold told his backers. 

In reality, wrote Joseph Conrad, the King of the Belgians' activities amounted to "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.

Leopold divided the Congo into concessions where task masters shot natives who failed to meet their daily targets.  Soldiers had to cut off the hands and ears of men, women and children they had killed and present them to their commanders who matched them against the number of cartridges issued to ensure no waste.

Roger Casement, British consul for 11 years in the Congo, reported to Whitehall that the population of one region had been cut from 40,000 to 1,000.  Prior to the Belgians' arrival, Congo's population was estimated at 20 million. A 1911 census revealed that only 8.5 m were left.
When Leopold died, a scramble for the Congo's minerals began that has continued to this day and which has resulted in internal wars that in the past two decades have taken four million lives - "wars of poor people against miserable people", as one diplomat put it.  "The heart of darkness" was how Conrad described the Congo. The heart of sadness is more appropriate.

There are dozens of other Congos in Africa; places blessed with immeasurable natural resources and cursed with immense and terrible poverty, problems so complex that they may only be exacerbated by the simplistic political solutions of the well meaning. 

The latest scramble in Africa is for oil.  The reserves, for which Western oil companies pay hundreds of millions of pounds in "signing bonuses" merely for the right to sink exploration wells, may eventually match the Middle East's.  The US expects to import 25% of its oil from Africa within 10 years.  Thanks to oil, Angola's economy is growing at 15% a year, yet the UN says it is the worst place on Earth to be a child.  The discovery of oil in south central Sudan has fuelled the killings in Darfur which humanitarian organizations say amounts to genocide. 

On paper, Africans ought to be thriving, given their continent's vast resources.  But try telling that to slum dwellers and shoeless peasants in the areas peripheral to the mines. 
It's time to stop the pillage.

No comments:

Post a Comment