A perspective on the colonialism debate

31st March 2017 By: Jade Davenport - Creamer Media Correspondent

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s recent tweets espousing the opinion that the legacy of colonialism was not only negative has sparked significant outrage and debate among South Africans of all ages and races. Now, that is a kind of debate that most sensible people would not touch with a barge pole, let alone actually initiate. However, given that it is under the spotlight, it is a perfect opportunity to discuss the relationship between mining and colonialism in Southern Africa.

From the outset, let it be clear that I do not share Zille’s views and am of the unequivocal opinion that colonialism wrought irreparable damage on the indigenous societies of Southern Africa. I am also of the opinion that it was through the activity of mining that the subjugation of indigenous societies, which is what colonialism essentially was all about, was most effectively pursued and achieved.

The discovery of diamonds and gold, the two commodities that have largely driven the country’s economic and industrial development, occurred at a time when colonialism in Southern Africa was on the rise and stamping its mark across the broader African continent. It was also a time when paternalistic racism, which had developed over two centuries, had come to dominate not only social, political and economic ideologies, but also the practicalities of everyday life in Southern Africa.

Thus, it is hardly a surprise that the mining industry absorbed the reigning ideologies and attitudes of the day and developed in a manner that was highly paternalistic and racist.

However, the South African mining industry did not merely reflect the reigning white colonialist attitudes of the day; it actively sought to harness that inherent paternalistic racism to mould and subjugate the societies of Southern Africa, which, until the late nineteenth century, had been mostly independent and self-sufficient to fit their needs of industrial production.

From the very earliest days of mining in South Africa, the extraction of the precious resources from the bowels of the earth proved to be a very costly and highly labour-intensive labour. To offset the exorbitant costs, mine owners sought to employ masses of very cheap labourers who were not only uneducated but also disenfranchised. Thus, following the discoveries of diamonds and then gold, the mine owners, with the assistance of their political cronies, set about implementing policies that disenfranchised black rural communities, inhibited their capabilities of being self-sufficient and limited their educational and commercial advancement. Such policies ensured that black males had little choice but to seek employment, mainly on the mines, and accept the little wages that were offered to them.

Three formal, institutionalised mechanisms were essentially used to exert such pressure on indigenous societies.

The first was the use of taxation, mainly in the form of hut or poll taxes. The most cited example is the Glen Grey Act of 1894, which was championed by the mining industry’s chief Parliamentarian of the nineteenth century, Cecil John Rhodes. That Act did not only impose a tax of ten shillings on every black male living within the Transkei and Pondoland territories but also disenfranchised those communities and limited their ability to have any political voice or freedom.

Secondly, a process of land dispossession, which culminated in the eventual Natives Land Act of 1913, was supported by the mining industry. This essentially facilitated the transformation of the large mass of rural black communities into landless peasants who had limited economic means to support themselves.

The third and possibly most effective mechanism was the pass law system. While South Africa’s pass laws were most infamous for historically controlling and restricting the movement of black people into white areas, they were also effectively used as a means of binding black labourers to a particular employer so that the fulfilment of a contract could be enforced by law. While the mining industry did not pioneer the pass law system, with the first such legislation having first been implemented in 1856, it did harness and cement existing policies for its own benefit. The first such pass system was introduced by the diamond diggers in 1872.

It can be argued that the mining industry’s involvement in harnessing existing paternalistic racist attitudes and institutionalising the racist policies mentioned above effectively laid the foundation stones for the eventual implementation of apartheid. Indeed, the South African mining industry has many damaging legacies still to atone for.

The flip side to this argument, as I am sure many of you are thinking, is how would South Africa have developed without its mining industry? Truth be told, the mining industry has been central to the economic development of South Africa and without the intensive exploitation of extensive deposits of the diamonds, gold, coal, iron ore and the plethora of other resources, this country would, no doubt, be far poorer and industrially underdeveloped.

But I will leave you with the fundamental question: Can one really weigh the economic development of the country and the generation of substantial wealth that has been concentrated in so few hands against the subjugation and institutionalised discrimination wrought on the majority of South Africans for so many generations?