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Here’s why a ‘mining-affected community’ in SA is not a simple concept

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s new mining minister, Gwede Mantashe, will have a lot on his plate in the first few months of his new job. One key thing he’ll be focusing on is the mining charter that his predecessor completely bungled. A key question to consider as part of this is the need for all stakeholders and community players to get involved in major mining decisions. – Gareth van Zyl

By David Christianson*

The new minister of mineral resources wants to complete the Mining Charter in three months. This may be possible, but if Gwede Mantashe pulls it off it will not be because mining-affected communities have made a meaningful contribution to the process. Indeed, they may find themselves sacrificed in the interests of a few well-placed groups and individuals who claim to speak for them.

When Judge Dunstan Mlambo ruled last month that mining-affected communities are to ‘be considered as interested and relevant stakeholders in consultations over the charter’, he was very specifically referring to these ‘communities’ as interested parties in the court battle to have former minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s draft charter set aside. Interested they certainly are, but their representivity is unproven. 

Newly-Elected Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

It is important to point out that Judge Mlambo did not suggest that these three organisations adequately represent all mining-affected social groupings in the country. Nor did he suggest that they have a contribution to make to the overall thrust of the charter. He was simply concerned that, as parties which had already been granted the right to intervene in the process in November last year, they had been excluded from the last-minute talks between President Ramaphosa and the Chamber of Mines over the postponement of the application.

It is worth remembering why the three NGOs intervened in the first place. Although they argued that the Charter would impact on their environmental and administrative rights, the crux of the matter was the Charter’s proposal to establish a Mining Transformation and Development Agency (MTDA). This is the entity intended to manage the community trusts which will, in each case, own eight percent of shares of the company that has the mining right.

Read also: Peter Leon: Here’s how SA should craft its new mining charter

The representatives of the mining-affected communities argued that the Charter fails to specify how people will be appointed to the MTDA, who will be eligible and what skills or qualifications they will be required to have. These are not unimportant questions. But what is of concern is that the present applicants appear to constitute a self-selected insider group and may well have an advantage when the MTDA’s officers are appointed.

At its core, the issue is about positions and ownership. The media has reported community ‘leaders’ as saying they want a say on quality-of-life issues, including ‘forcible removals, pollution and contaminated water’. These are often genuine concerns. But they are project specific and it is not self-evident that having this particular group of NGOs sitting in a national bargaining process is the best way to ensure they are dealt with.

Members of a mining community sit outside a shack in Nkaneng township, Marikana’s informal settlement, in Rustenburg, South Africa, April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

If the final Charter promulgates a body such as the MTDA it is imperative that its board be able to adjudicate, in an even-handed manner, between competing claims to represent the community. One of the motives of the applicants is their rejection of the idea that traditional leaders are able to do this. In this they may well be correct, in many instances, but it’s not clear that what they offer is an improvement. When material rewards are at stake, ‘communities’ have a notorious habit of fragmenting and adopting new alignments as they fight for a share. Should unelected ‘community leaders’ really be expected to make impartial decisions about who gets what and how much?

A rental on the returns generated from exploiting a mineral asset is a wonderful thing to have. It would be difficult to find an individual who would not want a share in a successful mine or a sinecure in an entity dedicated to managing the returns from such an operation. But wanting is not the same as representing. Indeed, it may turn out to be more likely to lead to rent-seeking than community development. It would be highly desirable to see the NGOs who currently speak for mining-affected communities demonstrating some awareness of the issue.

  • David Christianson is a Policy Fellow at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR).
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