The last two decades of African history have taught the world an important lesson: that the gems and minerals used to make luxury jewelry, including diamonds and gold, can contribute to bloody civil wars. But civil wars aren’t the only problem. There’s another lesson that too often goes ignored: that terrible tragedies can result when governments use violence to clamp down on miners.
We’ve been reminded of this latter lesson once again by events in South Africa over the past two months. Gold and platinum miners have been striking for higher wages and better working conditions. To date, nearly 50 people have been killed in strike-related violence. The most shocking incident occurred at the Marikana platinum mine in August, when police shot dead 34 striking miners. It was the most violent clash between police and protestors since the end of the apartheid era.
Could this tragedy have been avoided? We think so – first of all, if mining companies had paid miners a more decent wage. As noted in this CNN report, many miners earn so little pay that they live in shantytowns and lack basic necessities such as running water and electricity. Years of frustration finally boiled over, resulting in violent clashes and a needless massacre.
But it also appears that South African authorities didn’t do enough to prevent another instance of an all-too-familiar pattern – a pattern in which government security forces sent to mining areas for the stated purpose of restoring order instead end up causing bloodshed.
When it comes to governments using senseless violence against miners, two countries immediately come to mind: Zimbabwe and Angola. In Zimbabwe, claiming a need to stop unlicensed artisanal diamond mining, the military massacred more than 200 diamond miners in a single incident in 2008, shooting at miners from helicopters. In Angola, the military is responsible for human rights abuses in diamond mining regions including killings, rape, and torture.
The context of the violence in Zimbabwe and Angola is very different from the context in South Africa. In Zimbabwe and Angola, artisanal diamond miners generally mine on their own, rather than for large companies. Artisanal miners in these countries are also worse off; they are even poorer than miners in South Africa, who are at least unionized and able to flex some political muscle. Indeed, as a result of the strikes at the Marikana platinum mine, the miners recently won wage increases of between 11 and 22 percent.
Another important difference is that the violence in South Africa may have been less intentional and premeditated than the violent campaigns ordered by high government officials in Zimbabwe and Angola. The incident in August seems to have been an overreaction to angry miners, some of whom it is reported waved machetes and weapons as they protested.
All of these factors suggest that it is unfair to compare events in South Africa with violence in these other two countries. And yet, the death toll resulting from the South African strikes is shockingly high – high enough that we can’t help but think of other recent examples of miners that were callously struck down by their governments.
The important question now is: have South African authorities taken the necessary precautions to prevent another miner massacre? Unfortunately, we’re not sure. It seems that the South African government may have learned exactly the wrong lessons from the unrest. President Jacob Zuma recently deployed 1,000 military troops to platinum mining areas near Johannesburg. With military troops in the mix, we’re concerned that there will be more people killed and injured, as armed soldiers react to striking miners.
We hope that no more bloodshed results from the strikes in South Africa. In the meantime, Brilliant Earth customers who prefer to avoid South African gold and platinum can rest assured that none of our gold and platinum is from South Africa, as we use only recycled precious metals in our jewelry.