Paula Butler has given us a dense study of Canadian mining companies and their operations in various parts of Africa. She does so drawing on insights from Marxist/materialist analysis but more fundamentally embedding her study in post-colonial scholarship and critical race theory. In so doing, she attends not only to the operations of capital and states but also to the cultural, discursive, racial, gendered and psychological dimensions of contemporary mining.
The first three chapters of her study focus mainly on Canada, situating the role of Canadian mining companies in the current global mining industry and exploring the impact of mining and the meanings attached to it by colonizers, settlers and Aboriginal peoples throughout various periods of Canadian history. Butler depicts with painful precision how mining came to be embedded in a domain of European – and white – superiority, entitlement and tutelage. Indigenous peoples were, effectively “othered”. Dispossession from their lands and resources was normalized, justified as rescue from primitiveness and savagery made necessary within the logic of Europe’s civilizing mission.
Chapters 4 and 5 move to Africa and explore how these colonial and racial discourses play out in contacts between mining company officials and nationals in countries like Tanzania and Ghana. The role of law in resource appropriation merits its own chapter. Chapter 6 is based on interviews with Canadian mining professionals operating in African countries and captures striking moments where the colonial discourse is fully intact. Mining professionals still portray themselves as just “rock jocks” out in the world “doing good”, bringing “development” through jobs and economic growth and making African countries “competitive in the global economy”.
In Chapter 7, Butler deftly applies her social constructionist gaze to African miners whom she chooses to characterize as “independent miners” or “citizen miners”. She does so to counter the patronizing terms used by foreign mining companies - and African governments – that denigrate “small-scale” or “artisanal” miners”, claiming they impede industrial scale mining. These African miners who earn their livelihoods through resource extraction are worked up, through discursive practices, into a problematic social category, “backward” in their mining methods, “dangerous” to the environment and sustainability. Over time they are morphed into “poor people requiring development assistance” with programmes to wean them away from mining into income generating activities like fish ponds, snail farming, batik or goat rearing!
Chapter 8 is another fascinating chapter, tracing the role of the Canadian government and mining industry, through PDAC (Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada), in influencing the re-design of post-apartheid mining legislation in South Africa. Immediately after the first elections in 1994, the new ANC government asserted national sovereignty over its abundant mineral resources. Mining had been a site of super exploitation under apartheid with powerful white mining houses profiting from cheap, black migrant labour. Legislation was drafted to introduce equity instruments for Black Economic Empowerment, integrating Africans into the white-dominated mining institutions. Canadian government and mining industry representatives challenged these initiatives for resource sovereignty and greater participation from the black majority, both overtly and covertly. Butler’s final chapter returns to the theme of what decolonized relations would look like.
The core of Butler’s argument is that just as mining and mining exploration are contested spaces, so also are the narratives and meanings attached to mining highly contested. The materiality of mining is always accompanied by story-telling and by cultural and discursive practices that shape the meanings attached to mining. She argues that we cannot understand Canada’s contemporary global mining involvements seen merely as an economic phenomenon of post-Cold War globalization. They must be understood as embedded in a much longer historical trajectory starting with Canada’s own colonial history. Aggressive geographical expansion and racially embedded confrontations with Indigenous people are part of this history in Canada, with mining companies assuming a discourse of tutelage and protection of Aboriginal peoples who are constructed as backwards, idle and in need of the civilizing mission so dear to the colonial enterprise.
Butler finds startling evidence of the intactness of these discourses today. She documents the role of Canadian mining companies in the broad consultative process that shaped South Africa’s post-apartheid mining legislation. Six foreign mining companies including at least one senior Canadian firm contracted a South African law firm to prepare their submission, thereby maintaining anonymity. The submission from the “Concerned International Prospecting and Mining Companies” challenged frontally the South African government’s right to exercise sovereignty overs its resources. The proposed Bill made reference to principles that had been developed within the UN system after WWII including the rights of people to self-determination and to national sovereignty over the natural resources within their territories. These principles were enshrined in the charter of Economic Rights and Duties of the State. The six international companies claimed they were “disconcerted” by references to these rights in the proposed Bill. They argued that while the Charter had been adopted by the UN General Assembly with majority support, the developed countries had not voted affirmatively and the Charter had “no binding force either on the basis of customary international law or otherwise.”
At one level, Butler’s focus on race helps us understand how contemporary mining companies exercise their power. At another level, however, it blurs important dynamics related to class. I would have liked to see application of her analytic tools to African government leaders as another key actor. In South Africa, for example, the equity measures to redress white domination of the mining industry were adopted but quickly became instruments for emergence of a powerful black elite. Former mining union leader Cyril Ramaphosa, today one of South Africa’s richest business men and Vice President of the ANC, was one of BEE’s early beneficiaries. Yet the inquiry into the Marikana massacre in which police killed 34 striking miners found Ramaphosa, now a board member of the mining company being struck, as a major instigator of harsher police measures. He characterized the striking mine workers as criminal elements. Other government leaders worried aloud that the strike would frighten away foreign investors.
Current government leaders in Africa have adopted post-colonialism’s mission of “development”, a close cousin of colonialism’s “civilizing” mission. Under the neoliberal world order, African government and business leaders have been encouraged to operate in a new sphere where the exploiters of colonial days have become their “development partners.” Operating in this space may assuage centuries of colonial humiliation for African leaders and give the illusion of having “arrived” as genuine global players but the more telling scenario is the one identified by Frantz Fanon writing after the first wave of decolonization in the 1960s. Fanon speaks of the nationalist leaders newly in power discovering their “historic mission” as intermediaries, “being the transmission lines between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged.”
With what stories do Mozambican government leaders justify their authorization of the current land grabs by mining, oil and agro-business investors, resulting in dispossession for thousands of peasant farmers? Government “disappears” its own rural citizens, declaring their lands uninhabited and undeveloped. Their “deviance” is land held collectively, unmeasured plots and food production, all deemed inferior to “modern” agriculture based on monocultures for export.
Mozambican government leaders’ responses to their own citizens protesting against loss of lands and livelihoods to Brazilian mining giant, Vale typifies the intermediary role. Protesters barricaded the mine, shutting it down for several days. Government response was not tougher measures in defence of workers and community rights. It was a public lament for the loss of profits incurred by the mining company.
Butler’s ground-breaking and minutely documented study leaves us with much to ponder. Certainly its readers will find themselves looking at mining situations both in Canada and globally asking different questions.
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