Africa gold mines: the tragedy of gold mines

Two of the ten largest gold producers in the world are African nations. The discovery of the first gold deposits in Africa occurred in the second half of the 19th century. Even though the amount of gold present on the continent has decreased in recent years, the sector has remained very active on both legal and illegal levels. Once again, the common denominator of the various situations is the exploitation of workers and the environment.

Gold has been one of the most precious metals for thousands of years. Its uses are numerous, ranging from the production of jewelry, to its use in the medical field, to its use in finance. From time immemorial, as soon as a gold reserve is discovered, there are hundreds of investors ready to do anything to get hold of it, thus triggering what is known as the “gold rush”.

Gold mines in South Africa

The main protagonist of the period of the discovery of the first deposits was South Africa, which at that time was going through what is called the mining revolution: the country was experiencing a phase of rapid industrialization and profound changes in the economy.

Central was the development of the mining sector: the discovery, first of diamond deposits in Kimberly, then, in 1886, of gold mines in Witwatersrand, in the Transvaal region, made the country one of the largest exporters of minerals in the world.

It was precisely the dispute of this area to trigger the Anglo-Boer war between 1899 and 1902, during which the two groups of settlers clashed to obtain the domain, and therefore, the possibility of exploitation.

Since the discovery of these deposits, until a few years ago, South Africa was the largest producer of gold globally, until its reserves began to run out. Despite the gradual decrease in the precious material in South Africa, the country remains the first on the African continent in terms of production.

The Republic of South Africa is by now one of the most stable nations in Africa: the abandonment of the apartheid regime, after a decade-long battle by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, has allowed it a fair amount of growth on an economic, as well as a social level.

However, this does not mean that the state is not affected by problems regarding the living conditions of its citizens, specifically miners, men, women, and children who, as in all of Africa, accept dangerous and degrading work situations in order to survive.

In addition, the decrease in the number of mines and the consequent loss of employment for miners has increased the scope of the problem: a mine is abandoned when the gold reserves are now in positions that make extraction uncomfortable, dangerous, and costly, but those who have lost their jobs are willing to continue the search independently, risking their lives as illegal miners. Even the luckiest ones, who still manage to have a job, face health problems.

However, in May of the last three years, the Johannesburg court ruled that miners can sue the mining company they worked for if they suffer from silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by prolonged inhalation of silicon dioxide. In the coming months, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, and Harmony Gold will have to answer for the charges.

The decision taken by the Johannesburg court was probably influenced by the numerous strikes carried out by the miners in recent years, led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), demanding wage increases, and to which former President Jacob Zuma was unable to give an effective response.

Gold mines in Ghana

In the second place, among the major African gold producers, is Ghana. The country, famous not only for exporting gold but also for exporting cocoa, was, not by chance, called Gold Cost before independence.

The activity of gold extraction and export in Ghana is practiced by large international companies and numerous small Chinese entrepreneurs who moved there in the early 2000s to make their fortune. The Chinese have almost always managed to get rich, but at the expense of the Ghanaian miners – and others – who work in their mines. The latter, in fact, look favorably on the Chinese, who offer them a place to sleep, albeit unhygienic and extremely precarious, and three substantial meals a day.

Ghana is a presidential constitutional republic and, like South Africa, is one of the most stable states on the African continent: this allowed the Ghanaian Parliament to approve in 2012 a reform aimed at modifying the mining regulations, which declares “the land and the riches of the subsoil to be the property of the nation” and prohibits their permanent alienation.

The reform has led to the nationalization of some mines, such as Bibiani, Iduapriem, and Obuasi, now under the control of Ghana National Industries. The text of the reform also refers to the human rights situation of miners by prohibiting child labor, providing accident insurance for each worker, and guaranteeing them an eight-hour working day.

Gold mines in Mali

The third-largest producer of gold in Africa, despite not being in the world’s top ten, is Mali. There are numerous mines in the country, some of which are now abandoned due to the difficulty of extracting the remaining gold reserves, such as the mines of Sadiola and Morila, and others still in operation, such as the Loulo mine, opened in 2005.

As stated in a report by the World Federation for Human Rights, gold extraction is one of the country’s main economic activities. The mineral exports are second only to those of cotton. The potential for growth that can come from the production and trade of gold should not be underestimated: in a country where the possibility of finding a job is scarce and wages very low, the mining sector is one of the major resources to lift the state’s economic performance.

Work in the mines in Mali, as in the rest of the African continent, is relatively well paid but poorly managed, and the situation has worsened following the occupation of some of the country’s territories by Islamic terrorist groups.

The companies that have obtained management of the mines enjoy a strong position that leaves them free to act, being able to decide autonomously what programs they will activate in favor of local communities, not to mention that they often manage to obtain an exemption from paying taxes.

Another factor that prevents Mali’s economy from developing is the inexistence of links between the state’s economy and the gold mining sector, since all of the extracted minerals are destined for export.

The poor management of the gold market is only partly the fault of the multinationals that manage the mines, as it is the Malian government that must proceed to the institutionalization of legal procedures, which allow assisting a reasoned extraction activity, which takes into account the human rights of workers and avoids the destruction of the natural environment, with the progressive economic and social growth of the country.

The FIDH report denounces the poor treatment of mine workers: although there are rules to ensure safety in the workplace, they are not respected, and the state does not carry out controls to ensure compliance. The same happens with medical care, guaranteed in theory to all miners and their families, but de facto insufficient to cover the necessary expenses. In addition, the state denies workers freedom of association.

As mentioned above, it is the same companies that own the mines that must take charge of workers’ rights and projects aimed at the development of the areas surrounding the mine, but the objective of these economic actors is to increase their earnings, not caring about the health and hygiene conditions of workers, especially in areas where the interest of the state for its citizens is low.

Common problems in Africa gold miners

Suppose South Africa, Ghana and Mali are the major producers of gold on the African continent. In that case, smaller producers such as Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Sudan also share with them the poor management of the economy of the raw material, from the moment of extraction to that of export.

Local miners at gold-mine tunnel in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a 2014 photo
Local miners at gold-mine tunnel in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a 2014 photo. ©REUTERS

It is a common practice of using mercury to extract gold from the rocks in which it is embedded: the union between the two elements allows to dissolve the gold creating the amalgam, so that it can be separated from the surrounding rocks. Mercury is, however, a toxic metal, dangerous both for man and for the environment.

Just the exploitation and destruction of the environment in which the mines are developed is another common point. The entrepreneurs are used to abandon the places where the mining tools were located, not caring about the conditions of the land, often made infertile, with dangerous underground tunnels and artificial swamps.

Finally, the exploitation of minors is common: as often happens in mine work, children easily find employment, thanks to their slender physical conformation, and drop out of school to become miners. In many African states, child labor is prohibited by law, but this is not enough to prevent its existence.

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