MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling! September 2 2002

Published by MAC on 2002-09-02

London Calling! September 2 2002

Collective Amnesia afflicts Summit’s Last Days

Far be it for “London Calling” to suggest that the presidents of Zimbabwe and Namibia rank with the prime minister of Britain in the hypocrisy stakes. After all their recent military interventions in the Democratic Republic of Congo could hardly be compared, say, with the threats now posed by Bush and Blair to civilians in Iraq. Western greed for oil is surely of another dimension entirely to merely helping your African allies to a handful of diamonds and other minerals for the Good of the People…Isn’t it?

Robert Mugabe and Sam Nujoma certainly grabbed the world headlines at the WSSD last Monday, when they launched into a savage attack on Britain’s Tony Blair for defending white farmers interests in Zimbabwe and (implicitly) in Namibia.

However, credulity gets stretched and comparisons become uncomfortably close, if we ask exactly what these self-proclaimed anti-colonialists have done to counter their countries’ most insidious and persistent settler “possession” - namely of their mineral resources.

Mugabe talking the talk, but never walking it

Shortly after taking the reins of power from Ian Smith’s white UDI regime 23 years ago, Robert Mugabe delivered an historic speech. In it he declared that Anglo American and Rio Tinto (then RTZ) had “milked” the country of its wealth, inter alia employing ruthless “transfer pricing” practices. During the period of illegal white rule and in the face of international sanctions, the British company considerably expanded its asset base in Rhodesia, offering shares to whites only.

Though RTZ in London tried to maintain the fiction that its Zimbabwean subsidiary was acting on its own authority, Lord Carrington, the Rio Tinto director who engineered the end of UDI, was a close collaborator with Ronnie Walker, who headed RT Zimbabwe right up until 1978. That year, in fact the Tory leader was a guest at Walker’s home in Harare. He only resigned from Rio Tinto on becoming Britain’s Fforeign Secretary the following year.

“What rejoicing there would be in the RTZ [London] offices…if Lord Carrington were to find his way to a settlement with the regime in Rhodesia” wrote Paul Foot, Britain’s foremost left wing columnist in the "New Statesman" in June 1979. Sure enough Lord Carrington not only quickly delivered a peace agreement, but also safeguarded his former company’s sway over mining in the new nation.

By then, according to a commentator for “New African” magazine, Rio Tinto’s “tentacles” were “ stretching throughout the Zimababwe economy”. Alas. Mugabe was already hastily backtracking on his promise to bring Rio Tinto and Anglo American to book, let alone seize their ill gotten holdings or boot them out of the country.

In the succeeding twenty years neither Mugabe, nor any of his ministers (nor for that matter his political opponents) have re-adopted their earlier radical position.

Play it again Sam?

The grizzled Sam Nujoma is even less qualified to blast Tony Blair, one might think, than his Zimbabwean counterpart. As the high-profile exiled leader of SWAPO, the South West African Peoples Organisation, during the 1970’s and 90’s he made great play of his determination to appropriate ill-gotten corporate gains when his party finally threw off South Africa’s colonial yoke.

Rio Tinto’s Rossing uranium mine became emblematic of the worst and most profitable kind of foreign exploitation within the territory. (Who was Rio’s man in Namibia during this period when Rossing became the world’s biggest single uranium producer? None other than Ronnie Walker transferred by his London bosses from his successful and subversive stint in Rhodesia).

In its widely-canvassed attempts to close down the mine, SWAPO cited a unique United Nations mandate. The 1974 UN Decree on Namibia’s Natural Resources criminalised any individual or company which touched one ounce of Namibia’s uranium, copper and diamonds, a whisker of its black karakul lamb or a scale of its offshore fish. The penalty would be payment of hefty compensation when the UN finally regained political control of the territory.

That goal was reached in 1989. But did Nujoma follow through on his earlier vows to sue Rio Tinto and other companies that had ripped off his country? On the contrary, shortly after coming to power and as the uranium market price was in apparent free fall, he begged the company to stay on. For more than a decade he had lambasted Rio Tinto and criticised successive British governments (Tory and Labour) for conniving with Rio Tinto. In fact, privately Nujoma had been meeting not only with government representatives but Rio Tinto itself since 1981. Initially this was a foredoomed attempt to get the mining conglomerate to "recognise” SWAPO. Later it was a strategy to ensure that the world’s biggest mining company didn’t pick up stakes and quit Namibia.

Read into this what you will. Surely no one can doubt the real dilemmas faced by African leaders in mineral-rich states, when trying to balance reliance on foreign “expertise” and market access against continuing export of the mineral “value added”. In the case of Rossing, add the fact that hundreds of former workers have been terribly damaged by conditions at the mine, at least in its earlier years.

Equally we may doubt the credentials of leaders who seek to demonize one sector of a former invasive colonial regime, while failing to admonish another that's arguably been more pernicious, if not dispossessing.

In this respect Robert Mugabe, Sam Nujoma and Tony Blair have a lot more in common than they’d admit.

[Sources: Guardian, Financial Times (et al) 3/9/02; New African, February 1980; New Statesman, London 1/6/79; David Pallister, Sarah Stewart, Ian Lepper, “South Africa Inc, The Oppenheimer Empire” Corgi Books, London 1988; Greg Dropkin and David Clark “Past Exposure: Revealing health and environmental risks of Rossing Uranium:”, Namibia Support Committee and Partizans, London 1992; “Plunder!” Partizans and Cafca, London and Christchurch, Aotearoa/New Zealand 1991]

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