Opinion

White man’s burden and diamond’s curse: How South Africa is the breathing embodiment of Europe’s ‘civilisational blunders’?

After centuries of colonisation and decades of apartheid, South Africa, once a resourcefully affluent and thriving tribal nation, has "evolved" into one of the most crime-prone and unequal countries in the world.

“A diamond is forever.” One of the world’s largest diamond mining companies, ‘De Beers,’ uses this quote often to lure its customers and augment its sales. However, as is the case with most successful corporates in the world, its success story has a horrific undercurrent — greed and racism.

South Africa is one of the top producers of priceless minerals like Gold, Chromium, Manganese, and Platinum. It is the fifth-largest producer of diamonds as well. You might wonder what could go wrong with a country rife with such exquisite resources. The answer is “Invaders,” or in sophisticated terms, “White colonisers.”    

Two-time colonisation:

We are already aware of the consequences India faces to date from exploitation by just one colonial power. Now, to put into perspective, try to comprehend the havoc wreaked by two separate colonial powers!

In the mid-17th century, when ships of the Dutch East India Company were en route to India, one of their ships crashed on the coast of South Africa. A few months later, they were rescued by other Dutch ships to whom they reported about the richness of the country and the abundance of its farmable lands. Soon, South Africa emerged as the “place for resting and recreation” before pursuing the second leg of their journey towards India.   

In addition to farming, the Dutch set up trade posts in Cape Town to trade with other merchants and trading ships. Soon, the cultural fecundity of the tribal nation got adulterated by Dutch imperialism, and the nation’s demography was changed for good. Slaves from Dutch colonies like West Africa, Madagascar, and Indonesia started settling there. The Dutch colonisers in South Africa called themselves “Vrijburgers” — Dutch for ‘Free Citizens.’

What good is a story of colonial exploitation without the involvement of the British? In the early 19th century, the British snatched South Africa from the clutch of the Dutch. They unabashedly plundered the tribals and damaged their indigenous culture by imposing similar regressive policies as they did in India. 

Diamond’s curse:

None of the colonial powers had a specific interest in South Africa. During the early phases of colonisation, the country was merely a resting stop for the European merchants en route to India. With the advent of the “industrial & mineral revolution,” the West’s perception of Africa, much to Africa’s misery, underwent a radical change.

Following the discovery of diamond mines in Kimberley (a town in South Africa), the country became infested with hordes of diamond hunters and excavators. When the resources at the surface got exhausted, the European mining companies brought in bigger and more sophisticated tools and machinery to exploit deeper. Soon, the agrarian economy of South Africa metamorphosed into an industrial one. 

It was only a matter of time before the entire country came under the clutch of avaricious plunderers. Only a few big corporations controlled the resources, and any competition in the field was ruthlessly eliminated. De Beers bought all of Kimberley’s mines, and by the time its founder, Cecil Rhodes, died, the company controlled almost 90% of the planet’s diamond supply!

All the big mining capitalists figured out that paying lower wages to labourers (African slaves predominantly) and a little higher to machine operators was a sure-shot way of rolling in wealth. However, upon coming across rumours about the labourers smuggling uncut diamonds from these mines, these capitalists set up ‘strip clubs’ across the towns to strip the workers naked and investigate whether they were smuggling indeed. From here, the norms of racial segregation and ghettoisation started flourishing, which would push the country’s collective conscience into abysmal depths. 

Apartheid and the current scenario:

As the number of labourers in the mines kept increasing, so did the demand for accommodation and food. Since the majority of these mines were dug on farmlands, the capitalists purchased the remaining lands and commercialised farming. Even here, they forced the natives to grow cash crops like coffee, cotton, and tobacco, which led to an acute food shortage. To quell the chances of any uprising, the British imposed highly exploitative laws on the locals and introduced the “Natives Act 1913” — a regressive law that prevented the local black population from owning a piece of land.

In 1948, the British legalised ‘Racial segregation’ and divided the demography into three sects:

  • The Whites were the first class citizens, with laws extensively prejudiced towards them. They owned most of the properties and controlled the mining corporations. 
  • The Indians and coloured people came second in the hierarchy.
  • The blacks and natives got reduced to labourers and slum-dwellers. 

The story of Mahatma Gandhi getting thrown out of the train at Pietermaritzburg in 1893, despite owning a first-class ticket, is known to all. For decades after the mid-20th century, the whites reigned over the country as if it was their divine right!

The situation was expected to change when the rest of the world put heavy sanctions against South Africa for their horrific atrocities and violation of human rights during the apartheid era. In 1994, when South Africa’s hero, Nelson Mandela, became the country’s first black president, hopes were high that justice would finally be rendered to the victims of centuries-long oppression. 

Almost 30 years have passed, and Mandela’s own party, “The African National Congress,” has blatantly failed in governance. Today, the Government of South Africa operates more than 700 state-owned companies, and the country’s governing circle features faces that have rampant corruption charges registered against their names.

Despite having a black president, South Africa stays segregated to this day. The country scores 0.6 in the Gini coefficient, making it one of the most unequal countries in the world. Despite having a three times higher GDP per capita than India, South Africa is plagued by large-scale economic disparity.

The unemployment rate among youth is at a whopping 61%, and the rural outskirts of the country have to live through 12 hours of load-shedding each day! The houses in South Africa’s posh neighbourhoods have electrically wired fences, given the prevalence of burglary and theft.

Sadly, South Africa’s growth story is just like a diamond, shiny and lucrative from the outside, but it has no practical or real implications.

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