File picture: Phill Magakoe

JOHANNESBURG - On February 19, the Pretoria High Court issued an order compelling the government and the Chamber of Mines to involve communities affected by mining in discussions over the mining charter. 

This is not necessarily a problem - provided the social justice activists who all too often speak for - and at times in place of - "communities" remain duly modest and aware of their limitations.

This said, there is a singular pleasure to be derived from reading the self-absorbed ramblings which can and do emerge from this quarter. Indeed, it is particularly piquant to see the self-righteous demonstrate precisely the faults they criticise.

There is no better example than the piece penned by ActionAid Natural Resources Manager Christopher Rutledge ("The systemic inequality of mining affected communities," Business Report, February 19) around the vexed and complex problem of community participation in mining.

Rutledge argues that mining communities have been systematically juvenilised, with the result that, in engagements with the government and mining industry, they are treated as "subjects not citizens". "One is left with the distinct impression that 'community' and 'minor' are meant to be synonymous", he writes. The outcome is that these communities are reduced to "agentless subjects".

The problem, of course, is that there is no sign whatsoever of community agency in Rutledge’s own writings. He comes across as the uniquely qualified critic, positioned on some higher plane, dispensing wisdoms wrapped in the annoyingly clumsy language of post-structuralism.

About, not for

He doesn't speak for communities, he speaks about them, even while protesting that they don't get an adequate hearing. Rutledge writes that the legal and regulatory "discourse" around community participation portrays them as "recipients" not players. That describes his article too.

Rutledge is out to take on the big evils in the world. He blames the "exclusion of communities" on "the unholy alliance of government, unions and corporate elites". It would seem that everyone big and organised is simply bad. This sounds a bit like the thesis advanced in V.I. Lenin’s State and Revolution, where the state is defined simply as a tool for class oppression. That essay notoriously concludes that revolution would be made, not by its supposed beneficiaries, the workers and peasantry, but by professional revolutionaries.

Many social justice activists are intensely aware of the dangers in this. Critics of Lenin (and Stalin), notably Leon Trotsky, called it "substitutism". This is where the agency of the poor is displaced by the egoism of the unelected activists who claim to speak for them. There is no such awareness in Rutledge’s piece.

In fact, the article demonstrates a darker partiality. The people he claims to speak for are apparently "expected to bear all the toxic and destructive outcomes of mining". The benefits of mining are not mentioned - jobs, incomes, housing, schooling and municipal services. That these are imperfectly realised means there is room for improvement, not reason to overthrow the whole system. The positive role of mining remains a story that is not adequately told. It is simply not as headline-grabbing as disaster and destitution.

There are profound issues around representation of poor and marginal citizens located around mines and their right to benefit from the resource. Not least is that the idea of "a community" cannot simply be taken for granted.Activists are best advised to tread very carefully through this potential minefield. A good starting point is to let the people speak for themselves.

David Christianson is a Policy Fellow at the SA Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think-tank that promotes economic and political freedom.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.