Democratizing Africa's Wealth By Nationalizing Natural Resources

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Marikana massacre

[Op-Ed: Africa]

A little more than a year ago, South African police opened fire on platinum mine workers engaged in a wildcat strike in Marikana, South Africa. When the smoke cleared, more than 30 strikers lay dead with dozens more injured.

Labor problems in South Africa’s mining industry remain unresolved because only days ago, 80,000 gold mineworkers went on strike complaining of “slave wages.”

Lesiba Seshoka of the National Union of Mineworkers is quoted as saying: “The union is aware of the devastating impact industrial action would have on the economy, which is largely a White man’s economy with no benefits for poor Black mineworkers.”

Negotiations broke down and the union demanded a 60% increase in wages after receiving an offer of a 6.5 percent raise. There is a high level of resentment because the union contends that corporate executives have continued to award themselves huge bonuses notwithstanding slumping South African gold sales. Another mineworkers’ union argues that the wage structure for mine laborers is the same as that used during South Africa’s apartheid era. Both observers and those involved have expressed fears of violence.

South Africa’s continuing labor woes suggest that it may be time to commence an escape from the traditional White owner/Black laborer paradigm.

For example, in neighboring Zimbabwe the government has called for the “indigenization” of foreign-owned mines. Under the plan, such mines would be seized and then controlling interest would be transferred to Black Zimbabwean investors. Certainly the potential would remain for the new Black owners to establish an exploitative, oppressive relationship with their employees, but the removal of these valuable natural resources from foreign corporate control is a significant step toward genuine African self-determination.

The South African mineworker dilemma brings into sharp focus the question that has been deliberately ignored, but which has loomed large since the first African finger was lifted decades ago to resist colonialism. That is, who will own and control Africa’s oil, diamonds, gold, platinum, and other mineral wealth? 

During the latter phase of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa the issue was not effectively addressed by Nelson Mandela’s organization, the African National Congress (ANC). This was likely a deliberate, strategic decision based on an intuitive, if not informed understanding of the violent lengths to which the western corporate establishment will go to retain control of its African operations and resources that are worth uncountable billions of dollars.

The result of the ANC approach was a relatively peaceful transition from White minority to Black majority occupation of government positions, but it merely delayed violent confrontations between the suffering African masses who rightfully demand economic justice and western corporate exploiters.

The Marikana massacre is a prime example. In anticipation of these conflicts, the U.S., acting in the interest of western corporations, has developed U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) as a means of engaging in violent African conflicts with finesse and through proxy African armed forces that AFRICOM trains and directs.

There is no time like the present to return to the question of who will own and control Africa’s wealth. Indigenization is a good start, but the ultimate answer must inevitably involve full-scale nationalization of all major natural resources with genuine control exercised by all of Africa’s people through government structures that ensure not only political democracy, but real economic democracy as well.

Some may worry that nationalization might prompt foreign owners to flee with their capital and machinery, leaving Africans unable to mine their own wealth. However, that and other hazards can be avoided with careful planning.

Foreign owners can be alerted in advance to plans for seizures and a timetable for withdrawal can be developed collaboratively. Winding down and withdrawal can be accomplished in phases giving owners opportunities to leave or even enter into contracts with the African governments for continuing non-proprietary involvement in the country’s mining industry.

Incentive for foreign corporate cooperation with this process can come from regional unity and the consequent elimination of the option of simply relocating to a neighboring country.

In the event that an African country is forced to go it alone without foreign capital and machinery, an investment of the nation’s treasury --in affordable increments if necessary-- in the needed means of production would be money well spent given that mining is highly profitable and likely to result in very high returns for the country.

As always, the risk in all of this is that western governments will manufacture a “crisis” that supposedly justifies a military invasion and the takeover of mining operations.

This only underscores the vital importance of a continent-wide understanding of the high stakes and the necessity of continental unity in the face of such a threat, even if only a single African country is in direct jeopardy. Unity to that degree can prevail, because even western powers would not relish a war against the entire African continent.



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