Sociology and Anthropology webinar unpacks key drivers of local conflict in mining-rich areas in SA

Read time: 6 mins

The Sociology and Anthropology Department, in partnership with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung- South Africa (FES-SA) recently hosted a webinar titled: Communities and Struggles on the Rural Mining Frontiers.

The session unpacked the key drivers of local conflict in mineral-rich communal areas in South Africa.

The webinar was facilitated by Dr Asanda Benya, Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Sociology Department.  The session featured the following three speakers:

Wilmien Wicomb: An Attorney at the Legal Resource Centre who co-leads the organisation’s land programme.  Her practice specialises in land reform generally, African customary law and community governance systems. She has published several articles on customary law.

David van Wyk - A renowned activist, public intellectual and researcher. He is currently the lead researcher at the Bench Marks Foundation where he is responsible for 11 out of 13 major Bench Marks Research Reports.  His research is widely published.

Prof Sonwabile Mnwana – Associate Professor of Sociology at UFH whose research work focuses on land and distributional struggles in SA’s rural mining. He is an accomplished researcher and author whose work has been very influential and made meaningful impact in attaining and maintaining social justice.

All three speakers spoke passionately about different issues pertaining to mining, the targeting of communal land - especially in rural areas - by mining companies.  The speakers also delved into the massive environmental impact on land, livelihood and people because of mining.


Her presentation titled: Escaping Accountability Is a Team Effort on the evidence presented before a Commission of Inquiry between 2016 and 2018 into the Affairs of the Bakgatla ba Kgafela Community.

“The narrative from the Commission was of a traditional leader, Kgosi Nyalala Pilane, who allegedly transacted on behalf of his community’s land and resources without their knowledge and made a massive amount of money. But I don’t only want to tell that story, I also want to tell the story of all of the actors that enabled this kind of heist of community resources. These actors include mining companies, lawyers, government, banks and several financial advisors, who all profited by looking the other way,” she said.

She gave detailed background on the community and the events that led to the “heist”.

She shared some of the findings in the Commission’s report. “R5 billion wealth was accrued to the community,
R2 billion could not be traced and by end of 2016 the Bakgatla community was bankrupt and R3 billion remains untraced.” The report was released in 2019. “A newspaper at the time said this is possibly the largest state-sanctioned, business-perpetrated fraud in the history of Big Mining in South Africa,” she said.

According to her, there are four aspects of how accountability was evaded, allowing Kgosi Nyalala Pilane to successfully accrue R5 billion without the community’s knowledge. The aspects are as follows:

  1. Manipulation of customary law
  2. Slipping through the cracks between traditional and corporate governance
  3. State enabling, and
  4. Private Sector enabling

In conclusion, she said: “For accountability to prevail, the state must, through legislation, recognize and support downward accountability to the community and then open up, rather than shut down spaces for healthy and political contestation.”


Started his presentation with general anthropological remarks. “First of all, I agree with French Anthropologist, Claude Meillassoux when he says these rural traditional communities were self-reliant and closely associated with
the environment and the land where they operate. When these communities are confronted by major mining companies, they are confronted by a rapacious global economy driven by gross consumerism, when they are actually self-reliant communities.

Often, when mining companies move into communities they tell us there is massive unemployment and poverty in those communities. But that is a definition of poverty in terms of consumerism and in terms of the global economic need for growth and so-called development, which views every human as an employee rather than an independent self-reliant individual,” he explained.

He based his talk on a couple of communities in South Africa and Zambia that he has interacted with on their interaction with mining companies. He also gave personal accounts of the emotional and physical destruction caused by mining companies on these communities.

“A chief from a Zambian community who is about to receive land back after an utter destruction by a mining company told me they were returning a sucked-out orange to me. He said, they have sucked out all the juice and life out of this community and left us with the skin.”

He made reference to the Machete people in the Mapungubwe community in Limpopo, who were removed from their land in 1968 to make way for the De Beers Venetia mine.  “They were dumped 200 km from their land. They made land claims for more than 90 farms in the area. All these claims were gazetted, but they were never given back their land.”

He ended his address by making reference to the PricewaterhouseCoopers 2020 Mine Report.  “I have read how well the mines were doing in South Africa. We are faced with a situation where we are constantly told we are poor as a country when in actual fact, we are quite wealthy.  This is an imbalance we need to look into,” he concluded.


Last to speak was Prof Mnwana with his presentation titled: Rethinking Mine Conflict in South Africa’s Rural Mining frontiers, a topic that forms part of a book monogram he is currently working on.

Like Wicomb, he also zoomed into the Bakgatla ba Kgafela traditional community.

“One of the points I want to make is that most of the land, even if it was purchased by private African groups and fell 
under traditional authorities, customary systems of sharing, allocation and distribution remain intact and they still do. But disruptions and radical claims emerged in the context of mining expansion,” he said.

Prof Mnwana said land conflict, particularly in traditional authority areas, is characterized by private group claims. “I have mediated on many such claims, and we found that the original buyers’ names were not listed on original title deeds and the chiefs are now using that land and the minerals to enrich themselves.”

He pointed out that there is now a bit of a disjuncture in what is articulated in the social and labour plans and other land distributive mechanisms.  “People are not just demanding jobs or to do business with mining companies, they are now saying we are the owners of the land. They want mines to engage with them directly and not the Chiefs.”

He outlined a paradox on the interpretation of customary land rights, saying it seems to paradoxically hinder processes of internal commodification. “It limits the control by the holders of those rights. It enables external factors or external individuals of powerful actors to commodify land. As we have seen Chiefs are able to strike serious deals on the platinum belt with mining companies, while those who own the land continue to be displaced.”

Prof Mnwana said there is a need to revisit the interpretation of customary land rights. “If we want to understand the current disposition, we need to look back to see how the institution of custom inland was distorted. I think this where the root of conflict lies.”

He concluded his address by saying: “To understand contemporary struggles, we should first look at the nature and character of distributive struggles.”

The two-hour session concluded with a question and answer session that created robust interaction between the speakers and participants.

by Aretha Linden

Click here for the full discussion zoom_0 (6).mp4