South Africa’s resource curse is nothing new


Journalist Peter Fabricius recently wrote an article entitled “SA is experiencing the resource curse”.  In it he poses the question, “Is South Africa’s natural mineral bounty becoming a resource curse?”

The term “resource curse” refers to the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources, especially non-renewable resources like minerals and oil, often suffer from less economic growth and greater political instability than countries with few natural resources.  Thus, Sudan, with its abundant oil, has split in two after years of civil war, while Singapore, which has no natural resources (not even enough fresh water), has one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world.

I don’t argue with the idea that South Africa is suffering from a resource curse, illustrated in spectacular form a few weeks ago in the violent deaths at Marikana, but I would argue that it has suffered from this curse for about the last 140 years.

Before diamonds were discovered around 1870, the various people of this land eked out a living wherever they were.  The most established part of the territory, the Cape Colony, was a marginal trade outpost that over the previous two centuries had been developing an increasingly unified character.  People of English, Afrikaans and mixed race descent were slowly moving towards establishing a more or less mutual understanding and intermingling more and more, with Coloured people even being eligible to vote.

The massive influx of fortune hunters from Europe that came with the discovery of diamonds in the northern Cape, followed by gold in the Transvaal, turned this land on its head in a way not previously experienced.  And it wasn’t long before the dominant group, the English, exerted as much power over everyone else as they could.  Kimberley had originally seen and accepted black concession owners, who were later denied the right to prospect for diamonds.  Distrust of Black workers increased to the point where they were made to work in loincloths, were stripsearched after a day’s work, were restricted to fenced-in compounds and could be stopped and searched in the street by any White at any time.

All of this laid the foundations for the unhappiness that was to follow over the next hundred years, including the disastrous Jameson Raid and the subsequent Anglo-Boer War.  This civil war turned out to be one of the British Empire’s most unsuccessful conflicts and it created the conditions that led to Afrikaner Nationalism and later the system of apartheid.

We have forgotten that, in 1922, Jan Smuts ordered the airforce to drop bombs on striking white mineworkers who were protesting the dilution of the colour bar, killing 150 people.  This, like the later deaths associated with so many apartheid era incidents, and the most recent Marikana incident, was driven by the desire to protect big business mining interests.

The people at Sharpeville were not killed just because they weren’t very nice or the government didn’t much like them; they were protecting the status quo, one that was characterized by oligopolies controlling the biggest finds of natural resources known to man.

Therefore, while South Africa has not experienced the kinds of calamities and atrocities that have been associated with the resource curse across the rest of Africa for the past 50 years or more, we cannot suggest that Marikana is a result of something new.  This country’s very unhappy history is integrally linked with the resource curse of our natural mineral bounty.  If we recognise that, we can search for solutions that enable us to address it.  Perhaps we could even move towards something similar to Norway, where they have used their massive oil revenues to finance the growth and well being of an entire nation.