Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi

Landscape near Soweto (© Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi)

Free but Landless


The discovery of gold and other resources in the mid 19th century in the Witwatersrand area, South Africa, brought about the gold rush. Over the years, people were forcibly removed from land to make way for gold, copper, diamonds and other minerals. The socio-economic destruction that has occurred over the years is mainly due to the loss of the land.


The images potray the conflict between the benefits from the mines and nature.

  • Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi
    Esther Kibuka-Sebitosi


    The discovery of gold in South Africa in the mid 19 thcentury brought about a gold rush. In particular, the discovery of gold at the Langlaagte farm in 1886 attracted fortune seekers from all over the world. With the main gold deposits far below the surface, the need for mining engineering skills increased and resulted into the growth and development of the Johannesburg City Witwatersrand gold reef. Soon mining companies like Hermann Eckstein, Cecil Rhodes and Charles Rudd Gold Fields were established, resulting into mining shares as the trade with precious metal escalated. The traders from various corporations expanded their businesses. The mines however, were labelled as “dangerous” and proved risky for the mainly black miners. This prompted the recruitment of the Chinese to work in the mines in the early 1900s. The struggle of black miners continued over the years, as well as the forced displacement from their land, resulting into the emergence of townships such as Soweto. The disappropriation of their land left the people devastated and the land degraded.


    The image shows what is left behind - barren land; land that was degraded after the mining. Sometimes the blessing of minerals can be turned into a “curse of resources” if not handled well. In the rest of Africa, Angola, for instance, the forceful banishment of native people from their land in order to make way for gold, copper, oil and gas exploitation has similar destructive consequences as in South Africa. Similarly, Ghana has had its share of the mineral deposits that have led to expropriations and displacements of landowners and farmers.  All these challenges that Africa is facing today need urgent solutions.


    Land is the mother of nature. In order to create true sustainable wealth, we need land. Arable land is crucial for food production and safe living. In the 21st century, human development, technology development, industrialisation and urbanization have changed the land use. 


    Land use conflicts among large multinationals and local communities have increased in Africa. However, only few proper planning of peaceful co-existence is done. In September 2015, the UN member states agreed on a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which represent the global agenda for equitable, socially inclusive, and environmentally sustainable economic development until 2030. Mining companies have the potential to become leading partners in achieving the SDGs. Through their direct operations, mining companies can generate profits, employment, and economic growth in low-income countries. Through partnerships with government and civil society, mining companies can ensure that benefits of mining extend beyond the profit of the mine itself, so that the mining industry has a positive impact on the natural environment, climate change, and social capital.


    Land use-related impacts and environmental impacts affecting human health and human rights continue to be important social aspects in the mining sector long after the discovery of gold in 1884.  The benefits from the revenue are great and raise of employment is positive. However, the demographic changes and migration due to the presence of mines as well as the land use impacts are key challenges to sustainability. In evaluating the mining sector's contribution to society, the negative effects are often underscored. The economic values added in general are portrayed as the positive impacts leaving out the land degradation and resulting demographic dynamics. Consequently, the sector has been involved in controversies over the years.


    Most of the arable land has been damaged and polluted especially due to mining. This in turn has resulted into food insecurity and lack of descent housing, among other challenges. The burning of coal as an energy source has resulted into massive increase of global warming. The destruction of arable land is serious. The effect of mineral exploitation on arable land is multifaceted ( Mancinia & Salab. (2018). It causes large areas to be left unproductive but also degradation of water supply. These factors lead to socio-economic structural issues in mining areas. Such areas with hidden cracks would inevitably lack future sustainable development. Without proper compensation for the withdrawal from the cultivated land, the sustainable development of mining areas becomes a complex issue that hovers for generations.


    Sustainable development would require partnerships at all levels and sectors. This article is a call to the mining giants to act responsibly to compensate the landowners, put sustainable mining practices into place and give back the land. According to South Africa History Online (https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/land-labour-and-apartheid) land, labour and migrant systems created by the apartheid era continue to disadvantage black society. Firstly, the communities were broken up, families dismantled and people left in abject poverty. Secondly, the policies of the Land Act of 1913 followed by the Land Act of 1933, left little to be desired over land. Coupled with the Bantu education systems, black South Africans still struggle to acquire land.


    The images portray the left behind in spirit, soul and body.



    • Land, Labour and Apartheid. South African History online. Retrieved from https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/land-labour-and-apartheid
    • Ka, J., Ayitey J. Za, Kuusaana E.D and Gavu E.Ka. ( 2015). Who is the rightful recipient of mining compensation for land use deprivation in Ghana? Kidido Resources Policy 43 (2015) 19–27
    • Mancinia, L. &  Serenella Salab, S.  (2018). Social impact assessment in the mining sector: Review and comparison of indicators frameworks. Resources Policy 57 (2018) 98–111
    • Yong-feng, L., Yuan-hua, L.,  Zhuan-ping, D.  &  Jie, C. (2009). Effect of coal resources development and compensation for damage to cultivated land in mining areas. Mining Science and Technology 19 (2009) 620–625.



    published May 2020