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According to modern anthropology, Africa is the birthplace of mankind, but it is also the birthplace of mining activity. The oldest mine ever discovered is located in Africa, on a Swaziland iron site and was operated as long ago as 45,000 years! Nine thousand years before the Christian era copper metallurgy was developed in Mesopotamia, and around 1500 BC iron was produced in Asia Minor. The use of gold as a currency or in traditional handicraft was known elsewhere long before it extended to Africa. Yet, like copper or gold, iron was used by Africans from time immemorial. For example, both red haematite or black iron oxide were used as cosmetics or in funeral ceremonies. In many places gold was traditionally used in making masks and other ornaments, especially at the time of the great empires of Mali, Ghana or Songhai; and Ancient Egypt, of course, represents the golden age of copper civilization.
When Europeans began to venture into Africa they frequently found a fairly developed iron metallurgy; and Livingstone, for example, was surprised to find that the Mozambican blacksmiths considered British iron to be of a poor quality compared to local iron.
Though Africa has a long tradition of mining and metallurgy, its modern mineral story began only with the diamond rush in Southern Africa, at the turn of the twentieth century.
European colonization of South America was, from the beginning, linked to the exploitation of precious metals - gold and silver - but in Africa, mercantilist capitalism was for centuries based rather on plundering human resources through the slave trade, and wealth underground was neglected. Large scale mining in Africa coincided with the early 'Leninist' stage of imperialism, based on banking and industrial monopolies, on capital exports and on the violent conquest of the world by the big European powers.
The first diamond rush began around 1870 in Southern Africa, which was already a settler's colony. It rapidly attracted a host of prospectors, smugglers and speculators as had the Californian gold rush two decades earlier; but these independent adventurers were supported and manipulated by British imperialism. At this time the main mining companies which were to dominate the local scene for 100 years were established: Rio Tinto-Zinc, De Beers, Consolidated Gold Fields for example, with people like Barnato or the more famous Cecil Rhodes. These 'Randlords' soon made huge profits, often in excess of invested capital and thanks to their close ties with Britain and European financial centres, gained power and prestige.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Cecil Rhodes, who owned the De Beers diamond company and Consolidated Gold Fields had founded the British South Africa Company (BSA) which was to play a leading role in the colonization of central Africa. Patterned on the seventeenth-century chartered companies, BSA invested the profits it derived from its mining activities to build a colonial infrastructure north of the Transvaal, and induced British immigrants to settle on the newly occupied lands in order to increase the value of its investments. Until the mid-1920s, when the British administration took over, BSA ruled the territories of Zimbabwe and Zambia (then Southern and Northern Rhodesia). Truncated agreements with the local chiefs granted mining concessions to the British South Africa Company in all the territories it ruled; these concessions were readily confirmed by the British government. Later, BSA granted an exclusive prospecting licence to two mining enterprises owned by British, American and South African interests. Only in 1964, when Zambia became independent, were the concession rights transferred to the Zambian government against a 'compensation' of £2 million.
This pattern of granting concessions whereby colonization was organized by private mining companies with the support, and on behalf of the imperial state, was not limited to British Central and Southern Africa, but applied also to the Belgian Congo. There, the Katanga Mining Company ruled the territory in exchange for an exclusive mining concession granted by the Belgian state which derived its 'rights' in the Congo from the Berlin Conference of 1885.
From the turn of the twentieth century up to the 1930s, mining activity in Africa - with the exception of Ghana (gold) and Sierra Leone (diamonds) was concentrated mainly in the south. But colonial expansion in Africa was not limited to the search for minerals and, after the slave trade ended, spread to include land occupation, food production and, more generally, the acquisition of large zones of influence by the European powers. Early in the twentieth century the whole of Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia, was under colonial domination. But it was investment in mining, attracting huge amounts of capital and mobilizing masses of labourers, that had the greatest impact on indigenous societies - even in Zambia, where there was no white settlement.
Mining activity before the 1930s was based mainly on diamonds and golds, that is, on metals with little productive use in the metropolitan economies of Europe. Though closely tied to financial capital, mining investment was therefore unrelated to the general conditions of production in the Western countries. If it can be said to represent the Leninist stage of imperialism, mineral exploitation played precisely the same role in Africa as had the exploitation of precious metals in South America during sixteenth and seventeenth century mercantilism. Mining production, supplying gold for the needs of the international monetary system, provided the basis of very rapid financial accumulation. With no direct link with industry, mining activity had a quasi-speculative character, especially as the extraction of precious metals required very simple techniques and equipment and very short periods of capital immobilization.
During the 1930s, some changes began to take place, with the exploitation of industrial minerals, especially copper; the development of mining investment outside Southern Africa; and the coming of new investors. But because of the reverberations of the late 1920s economic crisis and increasing tensions in Europe these changes were to become effective only after the Second World War, in the 1950s and 1960s. During that time copper extraction in Zambia and Zaire reached very high levels, and production of other minerals - such as iron ore in Liberia, bauxite in Guinea and uranium in Namibia and Niger - also increased. A growing number of countries were forced to base their economies specifically on mining in order to meet the needs of the European metropoles. With a pattern of economic growth based on the mass production of capital goods, consumer durables and growing militarization, the advanced capitalist countries demanded ever-increasing quantities of metals and of energy, and between 1950 and 1975, world demand for metals was considerable. For example, it has been estimated, that during that period the metal consumption of the United States alone was higher than the whole world consumption from prehistoric times up to 1940!
Demand increased very heavily not only for such basic metals as copper, iron and bauxite-aluminium, but also for rare metals such as platinum, chromium and titanium, which were needed mainly by industries involved in aeronautics, space exploration, nuclear power and electronics. Despite the emergence of newly industrialized countries in the East and the South, world demand for minerals is heavily concentrated in the West and in Japan. The intense industrialization in these areas could not have been achieved had it been based solely on their own domestic mineral resources. But mineral exploitation in the Third World was stimulated not only by their abundance and high quality; a more important factor for Western and Japanese capitalists is the profitability based on cheap local labour and the expropriation of local property rights without compensation - conditions not available in developed countries.
Initially based on the extraction of gold and diamonds, mining in Africa today is centred on four basic minerals; copper, iron, bauxite and uranium, although the extraction of rare and precious metals is still of considerable importance in South Africa. These four basic minerals are essential for modern industries in whatever social and economic system they operate. Copper, which is the oldest, is widely used in the electrical and electronic industries; after silver, it is the best conductor metal per unit of volume. It is also needed in the production of capital and consumer goods. the construction sector and in vehicle manufacturing. The modern uses of iron are closer to its traditional ones, such as tool-making and construction works. Aluminium is the symbol of modern metallurgy and it characteristics make it a good substitute for both iron and copper. Low density, high conductivity and great strength compared to weight favour its use in various sectors such as transport, communications, construction, engineering and food industries. Uranium has a specific status as it is exclusively a source of energy, apart, of course, from its military use. Nuclear energy, which was quite marginal a few years ago, today produces between 10% and 60% of electricity in the Western countries.
Copper, iron and aluminium are, as it were, the metal basis of the growth pattern experienced in developed countries since the 1950s. And, in spite of the contemporary economic crisis which drastically reduced the growth of metal consumption, these metals still play an essential role in the economic systems of developed countries. Rapid industrial growth in the Third World and in Socialist countries over the last 20-30 years provides a new and important source of increased metal consumption. Meanwhile, the demand for uranium, at least in the West, increased considerably with the policies of diversification of energy sources induced by the oil price rise. The use of uranium for electricity production is rapidly expanding throughout the world.
It is now commonplace to praise the achievements of modern technology, but without the warnings of the Club of Rome and the increasing concern of other institutions and individuals about the progressive depletion of the earth's natural resources the fact that this technology is built on a mineral basis would have almost been forgotten. Large quantities of uranium, aluminium and rare metals are needed for alloys; but 'prehistoric' minerals, such as iron and copper, are equally indispensable for the conquest of space as for the knowledge of elementary particles. In the advanced countries, these metals provide the framework of an increasingly sophisticated system of production and consumption; while in Third World countries which export them. they represent a great historical opportunity.
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