Krugersdorp: A case study of contemporary human rights violations in South Africa
South African police during the raid of an illegal mine in Krugersdorp, August 03 2022.
Immediately following apartheid and the struggle to end it, South Africa attempted to focus on establishing an environment in which the human rights of all its citizens were upheld and protected, and in part, it did just this. Formally, both interim and final constitutions had outlined human rights institutions and by 1998, only four years after apartheid’s end, these had been established. The final constitution underwent a rigorous drafting process, involving a substantial amount of public input, and so before the first text was made open for public comment in November 1995, the Constitutional Assembly (the national body in charge of drafting the document) received over 1.7 million comments from the public. There are nonetheless specific and significant gaps in South Africa’s final constitution as promulgated by Nelson Mandela in 1996. Ensuring human rights is stated not to be necessary, but rather ‘reasonable and justified,’ an attempt to set a precedent of leniency for the actions of law enforcement from the outset.
Beyond the constitution and its drafting, the new South Africa, borne of a struggle against the violence of apartheid, began the organisation of a massive effort to deal with the human rights violations of its past. It hoped to engage all citizens in a ‘rainbow nation’ defined by hearing the truth and striving for reconciliation. Published in seven volumes and reporting on the abuses of the apartheid regime, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was not about identifying individuals who had violated the human rights of others, but rather was primarily concerned with building a respectful space in which victims could speak of traumas of the apartheid era between 1960 and 1994, and subsequently, creating an objective report of apartheid’s human rights violations.
Free South Africa was hoping to establish what many now refer to as a human rights culture. It was hoped by those who mindmapped and organised the TRC process that the collective knowledge of apartheid’s evils would ensure a nationwide abstinence from repetition of such acts, but what does this really mean? And indeed, does today’s South Africa demonstrate this acknowledgement of a discriminatory past and reflect, in turn, a promise to never repeat it? An analysis of the case study of Krugersdorp facilitates an understanding of the failures of the South African effort to ensure the protection of the human rights of all its citizens. Although neither the spectacularised sexual violence nor the illcit mining community that are discussed here are unique to Krugersdorp, I will here discuss the failures of South Africa’s efforts to establish a human right culture through an examination of what took place at Krugersdorp. While there are a number of conversations taking place surrounding the gang rape near Krugersdorp, gender-based violence is not new to the South African discussion space. Pumla Dineo Gqola’s discussions of enforced fear in the context of South African abuse against women mentions the case of Uyinene Mrwetyana - a 19 year old student in Cape Town who was murdered by a post office official. This case sparked for the first time a movement at a national scale against gender-based violence in August of 2019.
South Africa’s relative success as a colonial outpost was largely the result of its wealth in minerals. The labour laws which would define apartheid’s structures from the 1940s were first implemented in South Africa’s mining industry: taxes placed on black men living in rural areas intended to encourage migration towards urban mines and leaving a mineworking was criminalised exclusively for black miners. In the TRC human rights violations related to mining were frequently mentioned. One submission reads:
Approximately 69,000 miners died in accidents in [South Africa] in the first 93 years of this century and more than a million were seriously injured. In 1993, out of every 100,000 gold miners, 113 died in accidents, 2,000 suffered a reportable injury, 1,100 developed active tuberculosis and of these 25 died; in 1990 about 500 were identified as having silicosis.
Krugersdorp has been a mining site since its founding in 1887 and saw a number of human rights violations in this period. The edge of West Village, an area of Krugersdorp in Gauteng, is lined with pale ridges. They look sandy and bare, but are not part of this region’s natural panorama. Gauteng is full of these landscapes: man-made mounds scattered around towns, many long since covered in trees and houses. Around Krugersdorp, however, the mine dumps remain disused, a reminder of what used to be one of South Africa’s most profitable industries. The South African mining industry has been declining over the past three decades: mining’s contribution to the GDP fell from 22.2% in 1980 to 7.6% in 2014. Where the shutdown of these mines have failed to account for the environmental and socio-economic aftereffects of their closure, they have presented a substantive opportunity to individuals in the Krugersdorp region to enter into an illicit, largely subsistence, economy. Many of these illegal miners are migrants from the southern African region - Mozambicans, Malawians, amongst others. Regional migration towards South Africa’s plentiful landscape of mines is not new, but xenophobia has been a large part of socio-economic rupture in the past decade. These miners have been referred to in local communities as zama zamas: this moniker stems from Zulu verbs that translate loosely to ‘taking a chance’ or ‘trying again’.
On the 28th of July of this year, eight women were raped by over fifty men while filming a music video in the abandoned mine dumps at West Village, Krugersdorp. Over thirty counts of rape are being investigated by the police. There are many more stories like this which are scattered throughout South Africa’s history, but this one in particular serves as a contemporary lens through which to effectively examine both the xenophobic reporting and framing of the crime and South Africa’s persistent human rights violations at every level of what took place at West Village. Violence in mining communities is also no new phenomenon in South Africa, during and after apartheid. Ten years after what South Africans refer to as the Marikana massacre, in which 34 striking miners were killed by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and 78 more were seriously injured, the incident in Krugersdorp once more draws attention to the lasting effects of a dangerous mining industry.
Rosalind Morris, an anthropologist who has specialised in illegal mining communities in South Africa for over two decades, describes the issues surrounding informal and illegal mining in South Africa and in the Krugersdorp area. In particular, she explains the things that make this type of illegal mining difficult to legalise. South Africa’s mining for gold, both in its legal, commercial form and the informal economy that surrounds it, is unique because of the depth of the mines, which are often several kilometres below the earth, and the intimate connections that continue to exist between the illegal miners and those commercial activities which are still ongoing. The formation of zama zama communities such as the one at Krugersdorp, Morris explains, are the result of commercial mining for gold at massive scale, and even before the recent pandemic left many destitute, the false mounds that surround such towns became, in the last 20 to 30 years, hotspots for a variety of crimes. The framing of the case outside Krugersdorp in most media platforms (and by the current South African administration) has been xenophobic and in focusing on this presentation of the crime, has ignored the human rights violations as experienced by both illegal miners in the region in the past and the women who were raped. Illicit markets attract criminal elements, even when not presenting an explicit connection to local gangs themselves. Such nodes of undocumented money flows are exploited easily by local gangs, making illegal mining communities extremely vulnerable to gang influence. There are many dangerous aspects to this criminal market, from the presence of heavy explosives used in mining to mercury exposure, and together these form a complex illicit market. These individuals still, however, contribute to the legal economies in their areas: they pay rent, buy food, and their families may work in licit businesses.
A definitive aspect of the cases in South Africa which mirror that which took place in Krugersdorp in July is the absence of social services and law enforcement bodies. Some of these communities, including that surrounding Krugersdorp, see a different type of rule of law, such as reprisal killings, that are the result of the failure of the state to ensure safety. Whether failure of the police can be attributed to corruption, lack of resources or a dangerous combination of both, it leaves a vacuum in which the rule of law is absent: these communities are left unable to depend on formal institutions of the new South African state. This gap extends also to cases of sexual violence: the police in Krugersdorp took one hour to respond on July 28th. Regional economies, like those surrounding the mines in Krugersdorp, have changed significantly in recent years through closures and environmental damage. Mining corporations within South Africa have functioned more like pseudo-states in these municipalities than other corporations. During the HIV/AIDS crisis these corporations often filled the role that the state could not, or did not, such as providing antiretrovirals. The South African Human Rights Commission has identified this form of closure, and subsequent sudden departure of social services upon which huge numbers of people became dependent, to be the biggest source of illegal informal mining. This failure on behalf of commercial mining corporations, but also on behalf of the post-apartheid South African state, have led in a number of ways to the types of spectacularised sexual violence as was seen in Krugersdorp.
The attempt to create a new South Africa that is able to, both institutionally and culturally, ensure protection of human rights has not been as successful as it should have been. The context of the Krugersdorp case of this year demonstrates the many ways in which the dangerous overlap of illicit economies and the absence of effective law enforcement has left many communities in South Africa vulnerable to a catastrophic slew of human rights violations. When starting to research the events that took place this July in Krugersdorp, I was not anticipating to focus so much on illegal mining, or on the processes that set out to establish the ‘rainbow nation’ at its very beginning, but indeed, it is hard to distinguish one issue from the others: xenophobia from the TRC, gender-based violence from lack of policing. Perhaps the horrors of Krugersdorp have allowed a glimpse into the complexities of South Africa’s long history with human rights abuses. Morris concludes that ‘there is [...] a need to change consciousness, that women can be the medium for political struggle’ and a responsibility to address ‘the ways in which the education system has failed, absolutely, to do the work of transforming consciousness in the last 25, 30 years’. It is in this vein that the analysis of Krugersdorp has demonstrated the impacts of the failure of the South African state to ensure protection of human rights at all levels.
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