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An investigation into the human, social, environmental and health costs of platinum mining in South Africa

This project was made possible through the support of the Open Society for South Africa (OSF-SA)

Spanning several years of research and groundwork, my initial exploration of the mining sector in South Africa culminated in a body of work between 2011 and 2013 examining the minerals that have directly shaped South Africa’s socio-economic landscape. I was originally drawn to the way in which mining stamped its mark on the environment, but my experiences soon exposed something deeper: land rendered unfit for agricultural use; a public health crisis within local communities ill-equipped to cope with mining-generated air-, land- and water-pollution; and the disruptive influence of systematic labour exploitation on traditional cultural and familial structures.

The potential for expanding this project soon revealed itself – beyond the peripheries of the city, and into the small towns and rural communities surrounding areas of both abandoned and ongoing mineral activity. Entering these spaces with little pre-existing knowledge allowed me to explore these enormous, enduring socio-economic cleavages through engaging with those most affected – and, generally, most marginalised.

The work I produced during this time shone a light on everything that is wrong with the mining sector. Acting as a visual archive – a record of current mining practices and a graphic testimony to the need to find ways to reshape this rapidly growing industry – my photographs became visual signifiers for change. It is important to emphasise that the inspiration for choosing my subjects and the spaces in which I work is not statistical or scientific data. Rather, it is the product of personal experience; of my own ongoing investigation into, and knowledge gained through my travels across, the diverse and varied landscapes directly impacted by mining.

South Africa has been associated with mineral wealth, both in terms of diversity and abundance, for more than a century. In recent years, the demand for platinum in particular, of which South Africa holds the majority of the world’s reserves, has grown exponentially. But South Africa’s platinum mining industry has also attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. The tragic events that unfolded between 11th and 16th August 2012 at Anglo Platinum’s Lonmin Mine in Marikana in the North West Province resulted in the deaths of 44 people, 34 of whom were protesting miners gunned down by the South African police. A further 70 people were injured, and approximately 250 people arrested in the aftermath. These events sent shockwaves not just throughout South Africa but across the world, drawing international condemnation, igniting global discussion on, and questioning of, mining practices locally and abroad, and leading to a national commission of inquiry that lasted 300 days.

With the support of a grant from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, I returned to the north of the country in early 2016 with the aim of building on previous projects concerned with transparency and accountability in South Africa’s extractive sector, and to raise further awareness of the wide-ranging impact of platinum mining. The photographic narrative that resulted constitutes an in-depth investigation into the human, social, environmental, economic and health costs of platinum mining, documenting the communities that have grown among and straddle the northern, eastern and western limbs that make up the “platinum belt” or “Bushveld Complex”.

With the help of an extensive network of environmental activists and community leaders directly affected by platinum mining, I was able to engage with the community on various personal and emotional issues affecting their daily lives. By tracing the difficulties and dilemmas and human dramas that emerged wherever the mines of the platinum belt collided with the towns, villages, informal settlements and rural communities in their path, I began to create a body of work that connected people from different provinces across this vast mineral-rich geological outcrop.

Through my investigative fieldwork, questions are raised and directed at the platinum mining industry, and in particular, at the multitude of platinum mining companies (both multinational firms and South African black-owned empowerment companies) operating in the Bushveld Complex – an area spanning three provinces, from the North West Province across the Limpopo Province to the Mpumalanga Province; covering more than 50 000 square kilometres; and home to 80 percent of the world’s known platinum reserves.

Worldwide, demand for platinum is increasing, driven mainly by its use in catalytic converters in car exhausts and in the jewellery industry. Platinum has also become an important component in some of the new emerging technologies. Indeed, the scale of platinum mining activities planned for the future could make Limpopo the richest province in South Africa. In the North West province, too, mining is responsible for more than a third of the region’s gross domestic product, with the Rustenburg and Brits districts in particular producing more platinum than any other area in the world.

But as important as platinum continues to be as a driver of economic growth in South Africa, the human cost has been extraordinary. All across the platinum belt, as the mining companies seek out the mineral in huge open cast mines, the communities that live in their path are forcibly displaced, and often thrust into a completely unsustainable situation, with insufficient land to live on and none of the employment opportunities they were promised.

The mining industry is a microcosm of the overall picture in South Africa, which has enjoyed moderate economic growth while the divisions of the past – between rich and poor, white and black, remain entrenched. The environmental and social costs of mining are considerable, and the benefits that the mines bring are not always equitably shared, while local communities closest to the source of the mineral development suffer the most. Communities that come to depend on the mines for economic survival after having their subsistence farming literally taken from under their feet are especially vulnerable. Their fate forcibly tied to that of the mine, a mine closure spells instant disaster.

I hope that this body of work continues to ignite discussion around how as a society we need to stand together in bringing about a broader understanding of our shared resources and how best to use them. We need to acknowledge the fragility of the environment and the vulnerabilities of the people that live on the land under which the minerals are found. Growth and development is a prerequisite for economic stability yet we must never forget the wider context – how we got here, and how we should move forward into a sustainable and equitable future, where all facets and factors and peoples are considered.