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Mineral Resources of Africa

Africa is predominantly a continent of plains and plateaus with intervening escarpments which are the result of millions of years of erosion and planation.  Topographic relief is low over vast areas of the continent, and the only true mountain range on the continent is the Atlas Range of Morocco and Algeria.  The major area of rifting in eastern Africa has some areas of high topographic relief where large volcanoes have developed.  Most of central, western and northern Africa is at elevations mostly in the range of 1000 meters or less while most of eastern and southern Africa is at elevations greater than 1000 meters.

Africa is largely a continent of Precambrian metamorphic and granitic rocks overlain in some areas by a thin cover of sedimentary rocks occupying broad shallow basins.  Several cratonic areas on the continent are separated by major mobile belts.

Some of the largest, and richest,  mineral deposits in the world have been found in Africa.  For much of the last half of the 20th century little mineral exploration and development work was done in Africa, except for southern Africa, even though there is significant potential for the discovery of new deposits.  By the mid 1990's modern exploration started to spread across much of Africa and many new deposits have been discovered and developed and some of the old major deposits are being renovated. 

The potential of Africa for the discovery and development of mineral resources is immense.   Mineral occurrences are present throughout the continent in all countries.  Most of these occurrences will never be anything but isolated areas that contain small amounts of a mineral resource and will never be developed as a modern mine.  The reason for that is because most of these occurrences do not contain enough volume of the mineral to make mining economic.  However, the use of modern exploration methods in the region where these occurrences are known could result in the discovery of new, and previously unknown, deposits which could be of sufficient quantity and quality to allow for economic mining.

In addition to the influence of the rocks that underlie a mineral deposit, the ability to conduct mineral exploration operations and mining operations is affected by the landscape and vegetative cover.     Areas which are predominantly semi-arid and savannah are easier to operate in when compared to the areas of desert and tropical rainforest.

An excellent summary of mineral resources of Africa and of individual African countries is available at the MBendi website.   Good summary information about individual countries, including mineral resources, mining and exploration is available at this site making it an excellent source for summary information.


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Mining in Africa: A wealth of mineral resources

Say gold and diamonds and one African country comes quickly to mind: South Africa. But the African continent's store of mineral resources is much richer and more broadly dispersed than this easy association suggests.

"Sub-Saharan Africa," the authors of Short Changed: Africa and World Trade (Brown and Tiffen 1992) note, "exports gold and diamonds, but also large quantities of copper, bauxite, iron ore, uranium, phosphate rock and manganese; smaller quantitie s of asbestos, beryllium, cadmium, chromite, cobalt, germanium, lead, lithium, nickel, platinum, tantalite, tin, tungsten, vanadium, and zinc" (p. 66).

In an article entitled "African Mining: A Light at the End of the Tunnel" Magnus Ericsson, editor of Raw Materials Report, underlines the importance of these mineral resources to the countries of Africa: "Mineral exports contribute between 25 an d 90 percent of annual export earnings of 13 countries: Botswana, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Senegal, Mauritania, Namibia, Niger, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Zaire, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. South Africa is also heavily dependent on exporting its ore s and metals" (Review of African Political Economy 91, July 1991, p. 98).

The heavy dependence of these African countries on mineral exports means that the lives of many of their citizens are directly affected by the fluctuations in world market prices for tin, copper, and other minerals.

Third World minerals and mining

For a popular overview of the general state of commodity dependence in Third World countries we recommend two resources. The first is the seven-part series of videos produced by Sue Clayton and Jonathan Curling entitled Commodities (First Run/Icaru s Films, 1986). The second is the 1994 edition of the Third World Atlas (Thomas 1994), which contains a map on p. 18 that illustrates the extent to which countries in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean are linked to the glo bal economy by virtue of their exports of various commodities, including bauxite, diamonds, and copper.

In Third World Minerals and Global Pricing: A New Theory (Nwoke 1987) Dr. Chibuzo Nwoke of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs narrows the focus from commodities in general to minerals and mining in the Third World context. He explor es--in a heavily theoretical and analytical framework--"the issue of the conflictual relationship between foreign mining firms and Third World governments in the sharing of the huge benefits derivable from mining the latter's rich resources." The New R esource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles against Multinational Corporations (Gedicks 1993) is focused primarily on resource exploitation in North America, but chapter 2 offers a readable introduction to many of the political, social, and econo mic issues related to the mining of natural resources worldwide.

Raw Materials Report (Stockholm) is a readable and dependable source of current information on the production and marketing of minerals and other raw materials. Debates about the pros and cons of mineral exploitation in Third World countries are regular features of the attractively designed magazine. The publishers of Raw Materials Report, Raw Materials Group, compile an annual reference guide to the major corporate actors in the world mining and refining industry: Who Owns Who in Mini ng.

Two other corporate reference sources are The Gulliver File. Mines, People and Land: A Global Battleground (Moody 1992) and chapter 4 of the Institute on Trade Policy's Wasting the Earth: A Directory of Multinational Corporate Activiti es (Draffan 1993).

Mining in Africa

Mining and mineral extraction issues in Africa are examined in the following books. Some have region or country case studies.

African Environments and Resources (Lewis and Berry 1988). Chapter 11: "Minerals, industry, and the environment."

Going for Gold: Men, Mines, and Migration (Moodie and Ndatshe 1994).

King Solomon's Mines Revisted: Western Interests and the Burdened History of Southern Africa (Minter 1986).

The Golden Contradiction: A Marxist Theory of Gold. With Particular Reference to South Africa (Stemmet 1996).

Industrialization, Mineral Resources and Energy in Africa (Khennas 1992).

The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World (Kanfer 1993).

Mining in Africa Today: Strategies and Prospects (Yachir 1988).

The Mining Sector in Southern Africa (Jourdan 1995)

Short Changed: Africa and World Trade (Brown and Tiffen 1992).

Country studies

A study published byDakar-based CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Economic and Social Re in Africa), Industrialization, Mineral Resources and Energy in Africa (Khennas 1992), contains chapter-length case studies of mining and mineral e xtraction in Morocco, Tanzania, Nigeria, Algeria, Guinea, Senegal, Niger, Liberia, and Zambia.


Policy Choice and Development Performance in Botswana (Harvey and Lewis 1990). Chapter 6: "Mineral policy and mining development."

South Africa:

The History of Black Mineworkers in South Africa (Allen 1992);

Our Precious Metal: African Labour in South Africa's Gold Industry, 1970-1990 (James 1992);

South Africa Inc.: The Oppenheimer Empire (Pallister et al. 1987);

Studded with Diamonds and Paved with Gold: Miners, Mining Companies and Human Rights in Southern Africa (Flynn 1992);

The Political Economy of South Africa (Fine and Rustomjee 1996), and

Transformation on the South African Gold Mines (Crush et al. 1992).


The Mining Industry in Tanzania (Parker 1992); _"Mining and Structural Adjustment: Studies on Zimbabwe and Tanzania." Re Report, no. 92 (1993), pp. 9-107; "The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth, but Not the Mining Rights: The Mining Ind ustry and Accumulation in Tanzania," in Liberalised Development in Tanzania: Studies on Accumulation Processes and Local Institutions (Gibbon 1995), pp. 37-108.


"Mining and Structural Adjustment: Studies on Zimbabwe and Tanzania." Re Report, no. 92 (1993), pp. 9-78.

Case study: Rössing Uranium

In 1992 two London-based activist organizations--the Namibia Support Committee and PARTiZANS--published a blockbuster exposé of health, safety, and environmental violations at the world's largest open-pit uranium mine. Located in the desert in western Namibia, the uranium mine is run by Rössing Uranium, a subsidiary of the U.K. mining giant RTZ.

The exposé, entitled Past Exposure: Revealing Health and Environmental Risks of Rössing Uranium (Dropkin and Clark 1992), used internal company documents, interviews with workers at the Rössing mine, scientific data, and independent re to level numerous strong charges against the mining multinational and the British government.

Among the charges:

"Throughout the colonial era [Rössing] broke international law, defying UN Security Council resolutions, the International Court of Justice, and a UN decree" (p. 7).

"Dust levels in the Open Pit and Crushers have been known to reach 20-30 times the standard supposedly applied by Rössing (for respirable siliceous dust)." (p. 9)

"Workers in the Final Product Recovery area were exposed to very high levels of radiation in the period up to 1982, and even now their exposures are significant. Their lifetime risk of fatal cancer is probably at least 1 in 25 and possibly as high as 1 in 9" (p. 10)

Past Exposure describes the efforts of the Mineworkers Union of Namibia and of an international network of trade union and nongovernmental solidarity organizations to reveal the true state of working and living conditions at the Rössing uran ium mine and to take steps to ensure that the newly independent government of Namibia holds Rössing accountable to the "highest standards" the company claims to respect.

The conflicting data and controversial perspectives revealed in Past Exposu re offer educators and study groups plenty of substance for a case study analysis of one large and influential mining company in Africa.

More up-to-date formulations of the lines of debate regarding Rössing are found in the periodical Raw Materials Report, especially volume 9, nos. 3 and 4 (1993).

The Namibia Support Committee no longer exists, but copies of Past Exposure (and other information on mining in Africa) are available from PARTiZANS (People Against Rio Tinto Zinc and its Subsidiaries), 218 Liverpool, London N1 1LE, England.

Born of the Sun

Excerpt from Joseph Diescho's Born of the Sun: A Namibian Novel (New York:Friendship Press, 1988)

Born in northern Namibia to uneducated peasant parents Joseph Diescho went on to study law and political science in South Africa and to become active in movements resisting the apartheid system. Later, while working for a diamond mine company Diescho h elped found a workers' union. His novel, Born of the Sun, is a story of a dispossessed black majority forced to work in the gold and diamond mines of Namibia and South Africa.

"For four months Muronga has been working in the mine. He has adjusted to the routine and is quite content with his new identity as a mine worker. He has very few opportunities to leave the compound and little free time, so the compound has become almo st his entire world.

"At first, he was eager to learn everything he possibly could about his work and his new environment. Because of his youthful physique and good health, Muronga was assigned to work as a lowly shoveler. After the machineboys have blasted the rock s off the working face at the new end of the tunnel with dynamite, the choppers break up the larger chunks, and the line of shovelers pass the gravel shovelful by shovelful back to the loaders at the trolley car on its narrow iron rails. To Muronga and al l of the other men, the work soon becomes routine, so much so that one day Muronga decides to ask his supervisor if there are any other jobs he can learn.

"'Chiefboss,' Muronga exclaims, careful not to break the rhythm of his shoveling. 'Everything you have taught me here I know how to do. I would like to learn something new--like learning to drive the trolley car.'

"'What? Are you crazy?' the short fat white supervisor shouts. 'You are a shoveler! That's all you were meant to do. You cannot drive that thing, ever. It's dangerous, so only boys who can read and write a little bit can drive it. Not you...it's not fo r baboons like you. Now get to work! I am busy!' The supervisor shoves Muronga aside with the butt of his flashlight and stalks self-importantly down the tunnel toward the face.

"Taken aback, Muronga swallows hard as the men begin to sing, 'Tshotsholoza, tshotsholoza,' the chant they often sing to help them keep a rhythm and feel less tired and more united in the battle with the rocks."


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