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2. Africa in world mining geography

In general, Third World producers are in a strong position vis-Ó-vis the world metal resources considered here, as is indicated in Table 2.1.

Table 2.1 Distribution of the world's mineral resources (%)


Iron ore



















Source: Annales des Mines.

For uranium, estimated distribution excludes the socialist world; also the figures refer only to those resources which are exploitable at a production cost below US $80 per kilogram.

Africa's share in world reserves is relatively strong only for bauxite and uranium, although its reserves of copper and iron ore are far from negligible 43% for bauxite; 38% for uranium (but 17% outside South Africa); 17% for copper; and 13% for iron ore. There are, however, large potential resources of these four metals in Africa that are not exploitable under present economic conditions. To estimate such potential resources is difficult, but some interesting figures are provided in Table 2.2.

Table 2.2 Resources: proved and potential: Africa (tons)




Iron ore

20 billion

20 billion


63 million

12-110 million


11.5 billion

4 billion


712.5 thousand

502.5 thousand

Source: UN Economic Commission for Africa, United Nations.

These figures are simply indicative; because Africa has been less systematically surveyed than other areas, they may be an underestimation. The figures given for proved reserves should also be interpreted with caution as the discovery of new deposits, or technological changes, may increase the volume. Potential resources, however, will not be taken into account for some time to come in the formulation of mineral production and consumption policies, except perhaps for uranium and, to a lesser degree, for copper. For uranium indeed, the proved, exploitable resources under present economic conditions correspond to only 24 years of consumption. Even if the potential resources are included, the total consumption period is only 37 years. The volume of proved resources of copper amounts to roughly 60 years of consumption and according to more pessimistic estimates to a much shorter period. For iron ore and bauxite, much longer periods, of 165 and 225 years respectively, have been estimated.

In any case, Africa is and for a long time will remain one of the major mining areas of the world. Moreover, its significance in the world mineral geography of copper, bauxite and uranium is reinforced by the spatial concentration of world resources.

Copper reserves are concentrated in a limited number of countries: the United States (60 million tons), and Canada (16 million tons), possess most of the reserves of the industrial world, while in Asia and Latin America the main deposits are located in the Philippines, Peru and Chile. So even if the African share of world copper reserves is only 13.5%, the concentration of these reserves on the world scale gives Africa a high potential significance, especially because of the higher grade of its ore (2.6% in Zambia against 1 % in Peru, 0.6% in Papua New Guinea and 0.5% in the USA).

Likewise, for uranium, if we consider only the resources at present exploitable, Africa and the United States are the two major locations in the non-socialist world, each with a little more than 30% of total reserves; the remainder is mainly distributed between Canada and Australia. Such unequal distribution is not affected by the inclusion of the higher-cost proved resources which could be exploited at a price higher than US $80 per kilogram.

The geographical concentration of bauxite deposits is still stronger, as Australia and Guinea between them possess about half the world reserves; the other half is shared between Jamaica, Guyana, Surinam, Brazil and India.

Africa's share in world resources of uranium and bauxite together is higher than its share of world copper resources. The concentration of world mineral deposits in Africa is of vital significance in a world context, but Africa itself is unable to exploit this advantage vis-Ó-vis world needs because its mineral producing countries are generally too small to allow for effective collective action.

For example, copper resources are heavily concentrated in Zaire and Zambia, with Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, Senegal and Sudan having only small reserves; Guinea alone holds about three quarters of total bauxite reserves, while Cameroun (9%), Mali (7.5%), Ghana (5%), Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Madagascar account for the remaining quarter; South Africa and Namibia together have more than 300,000 tons of uranium, Niger about 160,000 tons, Gabon 20,000, and Algeria, where resources are not yet exploited, 28,000 tons.

Only iron ore reserves are relatively scattered throughout the continent as many countries have quite substantial actual and potential quantities.

Table 2.3 Iron ore resources in Africa (m tons)




Algeria 1,848 1,000
Angola 1,218 -
Congo - 800
Gabon 520 -
Ghana 620 -
Guinea 1,394 -
Ivory Coast 448 761
Liberia 2,055 5,000
Libya 2,514 -
Mauritania 360 2,000
Namibia 135 1,000
Senegal 420 600
Sierra Leone 537 -
South Africa 6,930 -
Zaire - 5 000

Source: Economic Commission for Africa, United Nations.

Iron ore deposits can be found, although in relatively small quantities, in many other countries: Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt north of the Sahara, Niger, Nigeria, Mozambique, Swaziland and Tanzania to the south. South Africa, with a third of actual resources, and Liberia, Libya, Mauritania and Algeria appear as the main iron ore countries, but their relative significance in this respect is by no means comparable to that of Guinea for bauxite or of Zambia and Zaire for copper. Moreover, potential resources, though unconfirmed, are quite considerable for some countries, such as Namibia and Zaire, which now hold a rather modest position. Theoretically this relatively wide dispersal of present and future reserves could put Africa in a stronger position for iron ore than for the other minerals in the world geopolitics, even though actual producers are fewer than potential ones. Yet Africa has only a small share of world iron resources and the ore is not of a higher grade than elsewhere. These resources are not heavily concentrated within the continent, but neither are they on the world scale, even if some countries, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, India and the USSR are better endowed than others. Africa's significance as an iron ore producer is, of course, reduced by the fact of these widely dispersed resources.

In 1974, on the eve of the world crisis, Africa's share (excluding South Africa) of world mineral output was 7.5% for iron ore, 17% for copper, 10% for bauxite and (including South Africa) 23% for uranium. In the same year, Africa's share in world production of copper was more than its share of world resources, but less for other minerals. At present Africa's share in world output and in world reserves are, respectively: 17% and 13% for copper; 7.5% and 17% for iron ore; 10% and 43% for bauxite; and (including South Africa) 23% and 37.7% for uranium. Thus, except for copper, the mineral resources of the continent are relatively under-exploited. One explanation for the relative over-exploitation of copper reserves may be the fact that copper extraction was the main instrument of the colonization of Central Africa, while for those countries which became major producers of iron ore, bauxite and uranium, mineral extraction was the by-product of a colonization based on other factors. But more important is the fact that colonization was much more intensive in Zambia and Zaire, both because of their proximity to the settler colonies of Zimbabwe and South Africa and of the dominant world position of British capitalism at the beginning of the century.

Africa's share of world output of copper and iron ore has decreased while it has increased for bauxite and uranium. The mining specialization of the continent as a whole is, therefore, increasingly based on these latter two minerals, although copper production is still significant. Table 2.4 provides figures for the last 25 years:

Table 2.4 Africa's share in world output (excluding South Africa) (%)





Iron ore
















╣Figures for uranium calculated for the non-socialist world only.

Source: Data estimated from Annales des Mines N/7-8-9, 1985.

Undoubtedly Africa is one of the main producing areas of the world for copper throughout the period, but in the 1980s for bauxite and uranium as well.

In common with the mineral reserves, world output is geographically concentrated. Thus, if we take the figures for the year 1983, we find that eleven countries only account for 90% of world production of iron ore. The USSR, with 30%, is by far the biggest producer, but Brazil and China, with 13% each, and Australia with 10%, are also important producers. The scale of production in India, the USA, Canada, South Africa, Liberia, Mauritania, Sweden and France is much lower. Over the last 15 years, the spatial distribution of world mineral extraction has greatly changed. The involvement of Western Europe and North America in mineral extraction has decreased while that of Brazil, Australia, China and the USSR has increased; Africa's involvement has, as a whole, remained stable.

As for copper, ten countries account for 80% of world output, but the major producer is in the Third World. Chile alone provides 15% of the world total, closely followed by the USSR (14.3%) and the USA (12.5%), then by Canada (8%), Zambia (6.59%), Zaire (6%), Poland, Peru, the Philippines and Australia. In the West only the USA and Canada are big producers, and the relative shares of Africa and the rest of the Third World are much higher for copper than for iron ore. The location of world production has evolved considerably since the 1960s in favour of socialist and Third World countries. But Africa's share has diminished, as a result of the large increase in copper extraction in South America, South-East Asia and Oceania; production tripled within 20 years in Chile and Peru and has increased six-fold in the Philippines!

World distribution of bauxite production is still more unequal. Australia is by far the major producer, with 31% of world output in 1983. It is followed by Guinea, with 16.6%, then by Jamaica (9.7%), the USSR (8%), Brazil (7%), Yugoslavia, Surinam, Hungary, Greece, China, India, France and Guyana. The first three countries obviously hold a predominant position.

Finally, the spatial concentration for uranium production is also very high. The USA 22%; Canada 19.3%; South Africa 16.3%; France 9%; and Australia 8.7%, between them provide three-quarters of the total production of the non-socialist world. The remaining quarter comes from three African countries, Niger, Namibia and Gabon. The location of uranium extraction has also changed recently; less is extracted in the USA and more in Australia and Africa, while total output for the non-socialist world has increased by one-third since the mid-1970s.

Recent changes in the location of world mineral activity have somewhat corrected the imbalance we noted between the relative shares of Africa in world resources and in world output at the beginning of the 1970s. Its relative share of world production decreased for copper, which was (and still is) over-exploited, and increased for bauxite and uranium, which were (and still are) under-exploited.

Given the strong spatial concentration of mineral resources, the African continent is clearly one of the major mining areas of the world. But, of course, mining in Africa is no more linked today to its own needs than it has been in the past. Production is still essentially for export and to supply the industries of the advanced capitalist world. It is not surprising, therefore, to find Africa's share in world exports much higher than in world output and resources. During the late 1970s and the early 1980s Africa provided around 10% of world exports of iron ore, 25% of copper, 27% of bauxite and 40% of uranium.

In common with reserves and production, the distribution of world iron ore exports has changed in the recent period in favour of South America and Australia. Africa's share was relatively stable at around 15% until 1974 when it dropped to an average of 10% If we exclude the USSR, which almost exclusively supplies the Eastern European countries, Australia and Brazil appear as the main exporters, since together they provide some 36% of the world total. The other major exporters are Canada (10%), Sweden (8%), Venezuela (7%), Liberia and India (6%). The advanced capitalist countries hold around 40% of the world market, the USSR about 10% and Third World countries 50%.

Africa's relative significance in world exports in copper is higher than elsewhere; Zambia and Zaire alone provide one-fifth of the world total, and along with Chile and Peru account for about half the world's copper exports, of which the Third World as a whole supplies more than 60%. Africa's position on the world market has, however, deteriorated since the 1950s which saw the entry of Asia and Oceania (the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea).

The most striking feature of the world market for bauxite is the spectacular growth of Australian production which was quite negligible in the early 1950s. But Africa's position has improved a great deal at the expense of Caribbean countries, and if its relative importance has decreased somewhat, the Third World still provides three-quarters of world total production.

Finally, the distribution of world uranium exports is even more favourable to the African continent, which is the Third World's only producing area. Its present strong position is very recent as the growth of uranium extraction began only in the second half of the 1970s in Namibia, Niger and Gabon. Australia has also improved its position, which was quite insignificant in the 1960s. The USA, which is the main producing country outside the socialist world (producing more than 8,000 tons in 1983 out of a total world output of 36,900 tons), is nevertheless a net importer as it consumes more than it produces. Table 2.5 provides the figures for the supply of uranium on the world market for 1980:

Africa's position in the geography of mining, therefore, appears quite strong both in terms of resources and in terms of production and trade for the four minerals under study. This apparently strong position, however, fails to reflect the underlying reality. Political balkanization of the continent inherited from the colonization is obviously a major hindrance, especially in the contemporary era which is marked by the setting-up of great politico-economic entities. Additionally, the fortunes of geology and history located the main deposits in countries of limited demographic and economic size. What can be the significance of such countries as Liberia, Guinea, Niger or Zambia in the face of homogeneous consuming zones such as Japan, the EEC or such big producing countries as the USA, Canada or Australia? For the foreseeable future, Africa will probably remain a strategic area for the external operators and many conditions must be realized before it can become an autonomous actor with its own strategies. The first of these conditions is certainly the liberation of Namibia and South Africa, not only because a large share of the continent's mineral resources are located there, but also because as long as South Africa remains a colonial and racist regional power, it will be very difficult for any Southern African country to challenge the positions and the interests of international mining capital. Another fundamental condition is the setting up of regional or continental structures, of a minimal size by international standards, which will necessarily increase the bargaining power of individual mining countries in their negotiations with the private and public operators of the great producing and consuming areas of the world.

Table 2.5 World exports of uranium 1980 (%)

Africa (total): 62.5
  South Africa 25
  Namibia 16.4
  Niger 16.7
  Gabon 4.2
Australia 6.3
Canada 29

Source: Metal Bulletin, various issues.

As long as these two conditions remain unsatisfied as without serious internal political and economic changes in the mining countries they will, any attempt to challenge Western capital's global domination of Africa's mineral resources cannot succeed, even though some progress can be made here and there for some individual country or for one particular mineral.

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