Picture: AFP PHOTO
Picture: AFP PHOTO

The finance minister has released an economic strategy paper that is meant to move the country away from its “unsustainable” economic trajectory towards an economy that promotes “economic transformation”, supports “labour-intensive growth”, and results in a “globally competitive economy”.

If Einstein was correct when he said “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels”, then the strategy paper fails to either introduce a new type of thinking and therefore almost certainly will not be able to move the country to a higher level.

While the strategy regurgitates much of the popular language around economic debates, such as transformation, sustainability, labour-intensive growth and globally competitive economy, it fails spectacularly to grab the bull by the horns, as it were, and leaves more questions than answers.

One of the key questions the strategy fails to grapple with is the mining sector, which continues to play an important role in the economy and wield enormous influence through the backdoor corridors of power.

In a soon-to-be published research report, undertaken by Wits University in collaboration with ActionAid and Mining Affected Communities United in Action (Macua), where we look at the artisanal mining sector as an area of informal employment that has been largely ignored as a contributor to solving the unemployment crisis, we shine a light on a sector that has been the victim of misconceptions and misinformation.

The research shows there is an empirical case to be made for the artisanal mining sector as a source of employment that not only contributes to feeding sizeable numbers of people but acts as a pathway towards transforming the fundamental structural bias of the current unsustainable economic trajectory.

The majority of the participants in the research — more than 1,000 miners were interviewed at three locations, two in Johannesburg and one in Kimberley — have one to three dependents. About 30% of the participants have four to six dependents. The other 13% of the respondents have seven or more dependents. Over 80% of the participants are working as miners on a full-time basis and about 90% depend on artisanal mining as their only source of income.

The majority of miners earn regular incomes from artisanal mining and evidence suggests these activities around certain communities contribute to the development of other small businesses in the area, as well as the development of supply chains that further build local economies and distribute the wealth at a local level rather than the historical situation where the country’s mineral wealth has been taken out of the country.

The government’s attempts to wish the sector out of existence by not including it in economic strategy considerations, excluding it from legislation and generally criminalising and vilifying citizens who are desperate for a plate of food, appears to be at the same level of thinking as that of a colonial political economy, which runs counter to the proposals in the economic strategy document.

As an example, the strategy calls for lowering barriers to entry and addressing distorted patterns of ownership through increased competition and small business growth. The document argues that “barriers to entry distort product markets and reduce the incentives for productivity and innovation, which directly inhibit growth. Large and old firms continue to dominate the economy as well as employment dynamics. New firm entry and effective rivalry among existing firms can generate significant consumer welfare benefits”.

Yet this call mysteriously excludes the mining sector, which remains dominated by a few corporate groups. Legislation sets up high barriers to entry for the artisanal miner who needs to put food on the table. The mining sector is also shedding jobs at an alarming rate, leaving vast pieces of land underutilised under care and maintenance, thus directly depriving thousands of miners, their families, the broader community and the country of opportunities to access SA’s mineral wealth on a more equitable basis.

The sector cannot be wished away, just as the taxi industry of the 1980s couldn’t be wished away. The government’s attempts to promote corporate interests over the interests of the broader society appears doomed to be proved wrong by the sheer weight of push-and-pull factors that inevitably drive the artisanal mining sector.

Furthermore, as a direct response to the vilifying and criminalisation of otherwise law-abiding citizens, artisanal miners have formed a National Association of Artisanal Miners to represent their interests and engage the government on practical and safe ways to advance the sector without the chaos that must accompany an approach that relies on “kragdadigheid” and denial.

The time for bold new thinking cannot be delayed any longer.

• Rutledge is executive director of the Macua-Wamua advice office