When Pedro Mzileni started his Sowetan column (‘The Boksburg tragedy points to the destructive role of capitalism in mining’) with, ‘17 black people were confirmed dead at the Angelo informal settlement in Boksburg’, I knew this one was going to be a doozie, and not in a good way. Already the implication is that nitrous oxide gas – like everything else to these trendy lefties – has something to do with pigmentation.  

Up to the 1970s, the rich field of South African historiography was dominated by the so-called ‘conservative’ (Afrikaner) and ‘liberal’ (English) approaches. The conservative approach emphasised that South Africa’s woes were to blame on British imperialism. The ‘liberal’ approach reasoned that Afrikaner small-mindedness was to blame.  

The 1970s or thereabouts brought on two additional schools: the Marxists and pan-Africanists. The Marxists argued that South Africa’s problems were – wait for it – caused by capitalists, and that capitalism was the cause and purpose of Apartheid. The pan-Africanists believed that colonialism had to carry the lion’s share of culpability. 

The Marxist approach has proved to have the least credibility and is the least reasonable among these approaches. Significantly more so than the other schools of thought, the Marxists insert their ideology into their historical analysis. Ultimately, to them, Apartheid was little more than a scheme devised to maximise wealth and exploit the poor. That the conventions and customs that over centuries gave rise to the principle of Apartheid pre-existed the Industrial Revolution and therefore what Marx designated as ‘capitalism’, is not a factoid that the Marxists pay much attention to. 

South Africa’s economy was built on the back of mining, and in every major epoch of our history mining stands central. Even today the industry contributes some 8% to South Africa’s GDP. 

While mining companies were overtly sympathetic to anti-Apartheid causes – going so far as to bankroll the founding of the Progressive Party – and the architects of Apartheid routinely criticised ‘English capital’ for its lack of patriotism, the Marxists insisted that the mining industry was in cahoots with the Nationalist cause. These academics existed in their own little ivory tower bubble, like Marxists the world over have always done and continue to do today. 

Pedro Mzileni is no exception. 

‘Mining is good, mining is bad’ 

Mzileni is not entirely sure about what he wants to address, but he is clear about the solution: socialism.  

He condemns mining as a threat to the environment, condemns mining companies for desiring profit, and decries the ‘mineral deindustrialisation’ that has occurred in South Africa over recent years, leading to job losses.  

Mzileni must choose: mining is either a bad thing that threatens our environment and leads to profiteering and runaway capitalism, or mining is a good thing that creates jobs and industrialises a society. If mining is bad, then it is good that it is disinvesting from South Africa. If mining is good, then Mzileni should appreciate the profit motive as an incentive for its development. 

Most absurdly, however, he condemns the mining industry for what happened in Boksburg, where the industry ‘experiment[ed] with dangerous chemicals near a poor township because there will hardly be any consequences for the mass genocide of black people who live in such dire conditions of poverty.’ He explicitly lays the blame at the feet of the Chamber of Mines. 

To Mzileni, then, the Minerals Council South Africa (previously known as the Chamber of Mines), under the presidency of Nolitha Fakude, is engaged in the ‘mass genocide of black people’ so that it can, through the proxy of the illegal industry, ‘experiment with dangerous chemicals’.  

Mzileni’s solution is for South Africa to ‘begin to organise against [international capitalism] in socialist terms beyond the paradigm of a single nation state’. He continues a long tradition, started in the 1920s, of Marxist socialists attempting to use crude racial-nationalist arguments to achieve their goals. 


As Dr Anthea Jeffery writes in her latest book, Countdown to Socialism, ‘The scale of the human suffering unleashed [by socialism] is often unimaginable’. She points to how dissenters are routinely dealt with in socialist regimes when they tread off the beaten path: they are ‘rooted out via comprehensive surveillance, while many are punished through prolonged prison terms in labour or re-education camps. Mass executions may also swell the death toll from deportations, man-made famines, and other cruelties.’ 

She expands in detail about how the African National Congress (ANC) government has, over the last three decades, gone about turning South Africa’s political economy into an avowedly socialist one. 

While socialism is always dressed in the garb of justice and liberation, it is in practice always a system of death, misery, and destruction. The only thing that has made ‘soft socialism’ – so-called social democracy – workable in practice, has been the extent to which those economies embrace aspects of the free market. Where socialism is pursued in earnest, which means the complete suppression of the market price mechanism and profit motive, only humanitarian disaster awaits. 

In South Africa, after a very brief period of mineral liberalisation heralded in 1991, the ANC government nationalised all mineral resources in 2002 without compensation. The mining industry is now regarded as effectively mining ‘on behalf’ of the people of South Africa, with mineral resources identified as a ‘common heritage’ for which the state acts as ‘custodian’. The notion that a private mining company owns the resources on its property is now legally void. 

The result of this socialist enterprise, of course, has been abuse, corruption, and economic contraction. Jeffery explains, in detail, how the nationalisation of minerals opened the door to BEE-related licences-for-friends frenzies. This went so far that in 2010, Gold Fields was compelled to include ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete, who had just finished a stint as Deputy President and was a sitting member of Parliament, in a BEE ownership deal.  

Such ‘compulsions’ are only possible in a system where the state is the owner, or at least the director, of the means of production. 

Due to such interference in what is properly a private matter, South Africa is one of the world’s most unattractive destinations for mining investment. Prior to 2002 South Africa attracted some 5% of international mining investment, whereas today it represents 0.95%. On the African continent, we place behind the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ghana, according to Jeffery. 

If large mining behemoths are pulling out of South Africa, do we really expect small, would-be mining enterprises to comply with the law? Despite the risks, some will find it easier and more lucrative to become a zama zama

The obvious solution: free enterprise 

‘Informal settlements’ – shanty towns like the one in Boksburg – are vanishingly rare in capitalist societies where normative rule of law obtains. These settlements are always and everywhere the result of poverty left uncured by the power of free markets. 

Take the top 10 economically free (‘capitalist’) states in the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index and the bottom 10, most economically regimented states, and conduct a study comparing the numbers of shanty towns. I am willing to go out on a limb and say that the answer in the top 10 will be closer to 0 by leaps and bounds, whereas in the bottom 10 makeshift locations will likely be considered common. 

Nobody wants to live this way. In an economically free society, people would use brick, wood, and concrete, not tin. They would seek out affordable contractors (with good reputations) to install sewage, water, and electricity infrastructure. They would truly own the property they live on, and take a far greater interest in, through homeowners’ associations, ensuring the community closely monitors for when certain properties are used in a dangerous fashion. 

None of this can happen in our regimented society. The formalities associated with establishing a legal township are out of touch with the South African reality. The result is that municipalities will not provide service to ‘illegal’ settlements, nor will formally established contractors do business there for fear of being reprimanded by the authorities. All sorts of dangerous activity are the foreseeable outcome. 

Mining in a suburb 

Why would anyone choose to mine in a suburb?  

The people responsible for these gasses being released in Boksburg would, in all likelihood, have preferred to work in offices or own shops. Instead, they have had to resort to this kind of hazardous work, because the government wants to ‘help’ them and ‘protect’ them, by imposing high minimum wages and onerous labour laws that keep them unemployed.  

This does not even touch on all the other ways government has damaged the South African economy in the name of ‘social justice’.  

If we want to avoid tragedies like Boksburg, we need to bring about a general level of prosperity for the economy. This is only possible on the back of wholesale economic liberalisation and strong property rights – in mining, in labour, in construction, and other sectors – and allowing those who seek to flourish here to be the authors of their own affairs.  

We will not, I hope, be surprised to discover that when given the choice, the people of Angelo township and the illegal miners would organise themselves in a fundamentally different way than the situation they have been forced into by bad policy.  

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Image by Tuna Ölger from Pixabay

Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Martin also serves as the Editor of the IRR’s History Project and its Race Law Project, and is an advisor to the Free Speech Union SA. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit www.martinvanstaden.com.