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IN JUST three short decades, from 1876 until the early 1900s, Africa went from being “the Dark Continent” about which very little was known, to a free-for-all supermarket plundered by five European nations and a king.
In his magisterial work, The Scramble for Africa, (a copy of which accompanies me on all my African travels), Thomas Pakenham wrote that “Suddenly, in half a generation, the Scramble gave Europe virtually the whole continent: including 30 new colonies and protectorates, 10 million square miles of new territory and 110 million dazed new subjects, acquired by one method or another. Africa was slice up like a cake, the pieces swallowed by five rival nations – Germany, Italy, Portugal, France and Britain (with Spain taking some scraps) – and Britain and France were at each other’s throats. At the centre, exploiting the rivalry, stood one enigmatic individual and self-styled philanthropist, controlling the heart of the continent: Leopold II, King of the Belgians.”
The Scramble for Africa was as much a scramble for resources as it was a scramble for prestige. As Pakenham puts it, “Africa was a lottery and a winning ticket might earn glittering prizes.”
Then came the era of decolonisation, and the wars of liberation, and for more than half a century, much of Africa was off-limits to the Europeans. The Americans, the Soviets and the Chinese made half-hearted attempts to fight proxy Cold War battles in Africa, but their influence was limited.
But now everything has changed: China is a hungry giant desperate for resources. Australian and Canadian mining companies find themselves hamstrung by pesky environmental regulations that limit their profits on home turf. And there are plenty of South African carpetbaggers out there ready to join the new gold rush.
The news is depressing.
We have reported extensively on how the Australian mining company, Coal of Africa Limited, Coal, has been blatantly ignoring injunctions (and, it seems, so have the various government departments involved) and have gone ahead with the development of a coal mine adjacent to one of our premier World Heritage sites, Mapungubwe. Now I hear worrying reports that just about the whole Limpopo Basin is under threat of mining.
Across the border in Zimbabwe, the Chinese have started illegally mining coal in the corridor between Hwange National Park, the Forestry Commission, the Gwayi Intensive Conservation Area and the Binga Conservation Area, a crucial elephant migration route (including for the so-called Presidential Herd). I am told there has been serious pollution of the rivers, and widespread destruction of the veld, and disruption of wildlife.
Further north in Zimbabwe, a Zimbabwean company, GeoAssociates, has been granted an exploration licence to prospect for heavy mineral sand deposits in the Ruckomechi and Chewore rivers, in the Zambezi Valley adjacent to Mana Pools, another World Heritage site. And across the river in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park, there is also talk of mining being allowed to go ahead.
This is despite the fact that Zimbabwe’s national parks are currently enjoying a boom time, with 2 213 tourists – 568 of them international – visiting Mana Pools in the first six months of this year, compared to just 728 for the same period last year.
All of this comes as back in South Africa, the KZN department of Environmental Affairs (!!!) has given the controversial Australian mining company, Tronox, formerly known as Exxaro, the go-ahead to mine dune sands at Mtunzini and in the adjacent Ezemvelo reserve for titanium oxide.
Staying with the Australians, the Tanzanian government has given another Oz firm the go-ahead to excise 200km2 of another World Heritage site, the magnificent Selous Game Reserve, for uranium mining. And the Brazilian group, Odebrecht, has been given the authority to dam the Rufiji River at Stiegler’s Gorge, in the heart of the Selous, for a hydro-electric scheme. Craziness.
I’m not even going to go into the mad rush to frack the Karoo for shale gas, Chinese plans to build a new deep sea harbour and trans-continental rail line in Tanzania, the coltan (and hence, cellphone – Google it) fuelled militia war in the Congo, and more Chinese plans (steaming ahead) to put a tar road through a vast swathe of Zambian wilderness so they can ship copper out of Namibia’s Walvis Bay.
Mammon has launched the new Scramble for Africa.