Not all mining firms are bad, nor all NGOs saintly

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Keith Bryer

One of the facts of life is the adversarial relationship between corporations (especially the large ones) and non-government organisations (NGOs), set up as charities for tax and money-raising purposes. It seems obvious too that foreign NGOs always get indignant in August for some mysterious reason.

The happiest stamping grounds for these NGOs are, of course, in Africa, where poverty, misery and wars abound. But who is to blame? What will arouse the conscience of the rich and the guilty?

The answer seems to be evil capitalists. The Bench Marks Foundation is a local NGO and it too has fastened on capitalism; big, faceless, capitalism to play the evil one. It is really a wonderful target. Even better if it is an entire industry and employs thousands of black people who seem to be in the foundation’s world, ipso facto, victims.

And so we have, on cue for the money-gathering season (our winter) a massive tome of half-truths published in Opinion and Analysis (August 15) and written by John Capel, in which he condemns the entire platinum mining industry as liars, cheats, makers of false promises and anything else he thinks he has a case for.

And lo, on cue with exquisite timing, the Marikana killings took place. I do not use the word massacre or slaughter, three words most prevalent in most descriptions. A massacre would suggest that all 3 000+ striking miners or at least 90 percent of them have been killed and the word slaughter suggests the killing of unarmed innocents which, given the number of visible weapons carried by the strikers certainly does not suggest innocence. And while I agree that arming policemen with sub-machine guns does not augur well for safe crowd control, when your mates have just been cut up rather savagely by “peaceful” strikers I can understand why trigger fingers may have slipped.

Of course, one could say that Bench Marks was prescient to publish its attack on the platinum industry when it did. One could say that it was proved right by the subsequent events. However, I suggest that the report the foundation published was actually bent towards its own preconceptions and prejudices.

Consider this: publication took place in the money-gathering season; the industry is rich and fair game (envy is a common human trait); the price of platinum is falling, so the industry is vulnerable to attack and will be hesitant to respond; and best of all, the biggest platinum miners in the world are South Africans and the mines are situated in one of the poorest parts of the country. It is a sure-fire winner to generate outrage. Donations must pour in. So much for motive pre-Marikana.

The attack on Anglo American Platinum is the most spurious and, I submit, somewhat economical with the truth.

Mr Capel leaves out the millions in taxes Anglo Platinum (Angloplat) pays every year and value-added tax on fuel and other local purchases. Left out are the millions in personal tax the firm gathers for the Treasury, the province and the local authorities. Left out too is the fact that many of the Angloplat shares are owned by insurance firms, provident funds and pensions, whose beneficiaries are ordinary South Africans, many of whom are black people.

These monies would not be flowing into the various levels of the government if the mines were not there. Without those platinum mines, teachers and nurses would not be paid, police and the army, navy and air force men and women, would get even less money to feed their families.

Mr Capel seems ignorant that all minerals under the ground belong to the state. Mine companies have to pay the state for a licence to mine them. It is true that without mines there would be no squatter camps around them, but social housing is the duty of local and provincial authorities, not mining companies.

All this should be plain common sense, but as it is always somehow left out, so let us examine Mr Capel’s allegations of terrible behaviour by Angloplat from a common sense perspective in more detail.

n Despite 40 percent local unemployment, many of the people employed on the platinum mines are migrants from other areas.

On the face of it, a good point. But how odd too. Is there perhaps something about mining that the locals don’t like? Would they rather have nice office jobs despite lacking the necessary skills? There has got to be a better reason than Angloplat refusing to hire them. And if mining jobs are so horrible, why are there more people wanting them than jobs available?

n Why hire migrant labourers not locals? Could it be that the migrants are poorer than the locals Mr Capel is so concerned about? Poorer and more willing to work?

n There is no technical college for mining (near the mines). Is this Angloplat’s fault? Anglo does a great deal of on-the-job training, but that aside, isn’t it the government’s job to provide and staff such colleges?

n The mushrooming of informal settlements around the mines is Anglo’s fault.

All mines and especially newish ones like the platinum ones are a magnet for people seeking to improve their lives. Informal settlements grow because the state, the province and the municipalities, cannot build formal housing fast enough.

Must the mining house build houses for everyone? Even those who arrived last week or last month? Even for those who do not work for it? Are mining companies the government? Should they be?

n Paying living-out allowances exacerbates the housing problem, says Capel.

A living-out allowance is a valued perk. Some miners demand it. They do not want to live in the mine where the water is clean and the roofs do not leak and where the sewers work. Instead they opt to live in shacks with wives, girlfriends and children (often a second family added to the one back in the rural area they come from) and then claim that they cannot come out on the wages they get. (Strikers point to the bottom line of their pay slips, rather than list as income their contributions to pensions, national taxes, medical aid and interest-free debt repayments).

Poor sewerage, running water and so on, are the responsibility of the local authorities and they are jealous of them.

n HIV and Aids and tuberculosis are rife because the mines employ migrant labour.

Would Mr Capel please deliver this analysis before an audience of 500 migrant miners? In words of one syllable for Mr Capel, mining companies are not run by ogres intent on grinding the faces of the poor – and certainly not Anglo American who pay top dollar wherever they operate – nor are they run by corporate con-artists intent on hiding the unpleasant truth from keen-eyed NGO investigators.

“Our” platinum would have stayed there if mining companies were not prepared to risk and spend millions getting it out; mining can either be done by machines with few highly paid miners or by many miners less well-paid – and which does this country need most?

Mining companies have their faults but all are subject to the law, especially in this country. So what is the real purpose of this diatribe against the platinum mining industry? Is it because it is perceived to be rich? Is it because it is failing to make everyone rich – if so, how can it be realistically expected to do so?

In a country crying out for foreign investment we should be singing the praises of mining houses who employ thousands and we should sing even louder in praise of Angloplat which, despite its faults, spends a great deal of time and money on matters that are not strictly speaking its business.

Being on the side of the angels may seem gratifying but the real world is not so simply divided into goodies and baddies. NGOs who think it is, may feel good but don’t do any good for the rest of us.

Keith Bryer is a communications consultant who has worked occasionally for the platinum industry. He writes in his personal capacity.


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