Victim of its own success? The platinum mining industry and the apartheid mineral property system in South Africa’s political transition by | Gavin Capps

by Aug 20, 2012All Articles

(Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa) Source: ROAPE

The South African platinum industry has grown phenomenally since the mid 1990s to become the single largest component of the national mining sector in employment and sales-value terms. In line with Fine’s (1992) contribution to a general theory of mining, this article presents an initial political economy of that industry by considering the critical role that the apartheid mineral property system played in its dominant strategy of competitive accumulation in the years leading to the current platinum boom. Emphasis is placed on the different forms of minerals ownership that

mediated the access of platinum capital to mineral resources in the Bophuthatswana and Lebowa Bantustans, where the bulk of South Africa’s vast platinum reserves were geopolitically located under apartheid and how the reproduction of these strategic mineral property relations was secured during the political transition to the benefit of the white platinum corporations. It concludes that the industry’s very success in maintaining its proprietary control over the world’s largest platinum endowment would combine with an unprecedented surge in global platinum demand to simultaneously position it as the most dynamic element of the post-apartheid mining economy and as the primary target of the new ANC government’s minerals reform policy.

In response to skyrocketing prices since the mid 1990s, the South African platinum mining industry has rapidly risen from comparatively humble beginnings to a position of increasing dominance at the heart of the post-apartheid mining economy. Between 1994 and 2009, platinum output grew by a staggering 67%, while production in the historically premier gold industry continued its long-term decline at a virtually identical rate of 63% during the same period (KIO 2010, p. 10). By 2010, over 24,000 more workers were employed in platinum mining than in gold, and platinum sales were generating higher returns than any other local mineral commodity (Chamber of Mines 2010, pp. 6–8). With global platinum demand predicted to keep rising (Genc 2008) and a domestic resource base estimated to be capable of meeting it for decades to come (Cawthorn 1999, 2010), industry commentators are now suggesting that the position of the South African platinum subsector is analogous to that of gold at its peak half a century ago (Stilwell and Minnitt 2006, p. 285). For all its significance, however, the story of platinum’s meteoric rise has yet to be told from the perspective of political economy. This article takes a first step down that road by considering the critical role that the prevailing system of mineral property relations played in the industry’s dominant accumulation strategy in the years leading to the current platinum boom. In keeping with Fine’s (1992) contribution to a general theory of mining, it thus highlights the manner in which different, historically given configurations of landed property can either inhibit or promote the access of capital to the mineral resources embedded in the soil, and hence fundamentally condition the dynamics of productive investment and inter-firm competition in a specific mining sector. This analysis is developed in five parts.

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