Over the past few months, I have been trying to construct academic arguments elucidating the plight of many Africans, particularly in South Africa. This predicament emanates from the excessive exploitation of resources and harsh labour practices that have underpinned South Africa’s development model for many years.
Besides addressing the obvious issues such as the deplorable migrant system and indecent working conditions across various industries, I amparticularly intrigued by the footprint of extractive economics in regions like Gauteng (mining) and the Drakensberg (agriculture).
I was born in the foothills of the Drakensberg, just below Lesotho, in Hlubistan (as I prefer to call my home). This expansive area stretches from the Vaal to Matatiele in the south. More precisely, Estcourt is my place of birth, and this area is now a symbol of poverty and destitution. For many decades, the area was a top destination for large corporations whose value chain depended on agriculture and cheap labour.
The three big corporations were always Nestle’ (Swiss), Masonite (American), Albany, and Eskort. In fact, the Estcourt factory, Nestlé South Africa’s oldest site, was established in 1916 and is among the first three factories acquired by the Swiss conglomerate upon entering South Africa.
These companies exploited the abundant natural resources of lush hills, rivers, and an infinite supply of labour drawn from the defeated, landlessand oppressed African majority. African labour contributed to the growth and expansion of multinational corporations and the advancement of the so-called developed countries, while wealth and labour value was removed from the continent.
Except for Nestle, these companies have almost disappeared and literally taken down the Esctourt economy with them, leaving not only hungry families but also a ruined natural environment. In 1996, the non-agrarian Burhose textile factory laid off about 1 200 people and shut down probably as a result of the country’s accession to the World Trade Organisation a year earlier.
Once the area’s biggest employer, Masonite closed down but its footprint is visible for all to see like Johannesburg’s fake mountains and acid waters. Thirty kilometres on the road towards Harrismith, the company had developed huge plantations of foreign tree species like wattle, pine and gum trees.
According to the WWF, these alien plants “use far more water than indigenous vegetation”. As to be expected, the invasion of water-intensive exotic plants that occurred for many decades has severely impacted the country’s critical water source areas, thus contributing to water insecurity.
In their academic paper, Molly Cavaleri and her colleagues further explain that woody invasives have a significant effect on the water balance of a system. This is due to their higher rainfall interception, higher transpiration rates, deeper roots, greater standing biomass, greater carbon sequestration and longer growing seasons than co-occurring herbaceous plants.
Consequently, the availability of freshwater has declined to the point where people lack reliable water sources for farming, livestock, and daily use.
Often, the argument is that the government has failed to develop the water infrastructure and this is said to be the root cause of the water shortage problems. Some of the companies want to leaveand urban residents threaten not to pay rates and taxes due to poor service delivery. But the question is, has anyone cared about the neglected communities that have never had piped water?
Additionally, water resources in mid-Drakensberg are either privatised and serving farming needs only or transported out to Gauteng, leaving the communities to scramble and compete with animals for brown water. This is despite the fact that major rivers like uThukela and Bushman’s as well as many streams and dams grossly underserve the locals.
While all this is true, the impact of water-intensive exotic plants and heavy usage of fertilisers on aquifers, streams and the entire ecosystem isoften overlooked. Natural water that sprung all over the place is nowhere to be seen and soil erosion is rife due to many reasons.
I then decided to pursue my doctoral studies in international economic law at a European university, aiming to expose the hypocrisy of a relatively new and burgeoning field in international law called business and human rights.
As is always mentioned, Europe is suddenly emerging as a global leader in attempts to hold companies for human rights violations, including labour transgressions, environmental degradation and other malpractices. Countries such as France, Germany and the European Union (EU) now have laws to achieve this purpose.
Famous for their regime shifting and hypocrisy, Western countries are known for creating rules that suit their interests and often disregarding their traditional role as major human rights violators under slavery, colonialism, apartheid, extractive capitalism and, of course, discriminatory laws governing economics and trade.
Central to their approaches is over-reliance on Eurocentric laws and their doctrines that do not quite make the cut in the developing world, especially when the historical contexts are taken into consideration.
For instance, the determination of the criminal nature and consequences of an act (whether it is an action or lack thereof) shall be based on the applicable criminal law at the time the act was committed. No individual can be held criminally responsible for an act that was not considered a crime at the time it was committed. What this means is that the footprint of corporations in South Africa cannot be punished, and those affected will never achieve social justice.
Many of these corporations are foreign-owned or exited South Africa after the fall of apartheid, predominantly incorporated in Western European countries like England and the Netherlands. In the absence of a treaty that enables the punishment of corporations for their wrongdoing, Europe has strategically positioned itself as the saviour of those trapped at the bottom of global value chains where the majority of business-linked transgressions occur.
It is generally acknowledged that the long-standing history of extraction by developed countries and their corporations is accompanied by repression and the exploitation of people residing in those developing countries, with the “indigenous peoples” often inhabiting the regions abundant in natural resources.
My journey academic journey has not been particularly smooth and did not go as expected. In the academic environment where universities and institutions of higher education are “increasingly commodified, universities become marketplaces”, I did not expect much as my prospective supervisors dissuaded me from taking a retrospective approach to human rights.
I suspect this was construed as reopening a contentious area of reparations, which the former colonisers vehemently oppose. Recently, the King of the Netherlands “apologised” for his country’s role in the slave trade and colonialism but insisted that this apology would not be accompanied by reparations. Also, the Dutch state dissociates itself from the activities of the Dutch East India Company that ruled places like South Africa and South Asia for long periods.
Professor Issa Shivji argues that Africans study Africa in centres of African studies in the image of centres in the North, this does not necessarily mean geography but orientation. Hence, students like me are prevented to tell their lived experiences from their own viewpoints. We are forced to write PhDs applying the convention on the rights of “indigenous people” to our own citizens.
And this is quite problematic because “to talk of citizens’ rights is foreign, Western; to ruminate on indigenous rights is authentic, African!” Shivji argues that we have been metamorphosed —evolving from colonial natives and migrants into neo-colonial indigenous individuals and tyrants, thanks to imperial intellectuals and their African caricatures.
As everybody gets excited about a possible binding treaty and Europe’s due diligence legislation, all purporting to deal with agents of toxic globalism capitalism (companies), two things remain certain.
Firstly, corporations will continue to ransack poor people and countries in Africa and beyond. Secondly, the historical injustices resulting from the heavy exploitation of resources, today fashionably called global warming, will never be addressed.
Siya yi banga le economy!