By: Lebogang Maile
Upon hearing of the tragic recent events at Harrison Park Museum in Langlaagte, with the death of illegal miners making newspaper headlines, one was reminded of the poignant quote from Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, “Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery; it’s not caused by “over-production”; it’s not caused by drink or laziness; and it’s not caused by “over-population”. It’s caused by Private Monopoly. That is the present system. They have monopolised everything that it is possible to monopolise; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth. The only reason they have not monopolised the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work for them in order to get money to buy air to breathe. And if that seemingly impossible thing were accomplished tomorrow, you would see thousands of people dying for want of air – or of the money to buy it – even as now thousands are dying for want of the other necessities of life. You would see people going about gasping for breath, and telling each other that the likes of them could not expect to have air to breathe unless they had the money to pay for it. Most of you here, for instance, would think and say so. Even as you think at present that it’s right for so few people to own the Earth, the Minerals and the Water, which are all just as necessary as is the air. In exactly the same spirit as you now say: “It’s Their Land,” “It’s Their Water,” “It’s Their Coal,” “It’s Their Iron,” so you would say “It’s Their Air,” “These are their gasometers, and what right have the likes of us to expect them to allow us to breathe for nothing?” And even while he is doing this the air monopolist will be preaching sermons on the Brotherhood of Man; he will be dispensing advice on “Christian Duty” in the Sunday magazines; he will give utterance to numerous more or less moral maxims for the guidance of the young. And meantime, all around, people will be dying for want of some of the air that he will have bottled up in his gasometers. And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order, and after doing your best to tear him limb from limb, you’ll drag him, covered with blood, in triumph to the nearest Police Station and deliver him up to “justice” in the hope of being given a few half-pounds of air for your trouble.”
The root cause of illegal mining, is an unjust economic and social system, that keeps the majority of our people, who are mostly black, out of mainstream economic activity, ownership and control. We are a constitutional democracy with a government that believes in upholding the rule of law and can never be seen to be condoning acts of criminality, but we have to have a more nuanced analysis of the reasons why people risk their lives, mining in dangerous areas in order to just eke out a decent living for themselves.
We live in one of the most unequal countries in the world, where the majority of the wealth and resources are owned and controlled by an elite few, along mostly racial lines because of our divided past. Until we deal with these root causes that cause the majority of our people to be kept out of economic ownership, to be casualised as labourers and to suffer the daily indignity of living in subhuman conditions, problems such as illegal mining will continue to plague our country. We need to form a social pact with all the different stakeholders in society, in order to bring down monopoly capital and give our people greater access to wealth creation, asset-building and economic ownership opportunities. We need sustainable, equitable, job creating, inclusive economic growth in order to solve many of the social ills we are plagued with as a country.
Government established the Gauteng Crime Intelligence Committee on Illegal Mining in order to stop illegal operations. The aim is to destroy the syndicates who are behind these illegal operations as well as the markets they’re supplying. Government is actively looking to support small-scale mining and the huge potential it possesses to absorb greater numbers of people in productive employment. This will have the effect of breaking down monopoly capital’s control on our natural resources and giving our people a better chance of earning a livelihood in a decent, dignified manner.
To quote from Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists again, “Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery, and is therefore the enemy of his own children. There is no such thing as being neutral: we must either help or hinder.” It is in all in our hands to build a just, equitable, inclusive economy and society that will have opportunity for all of its people and not just an elite few. That is the only long term solution to putting an end to unwanted ills like illegal mining.
Lebogang Maile is the MEC of Economic Development, Environment, Agriculture and Rural Development in Gauteng.