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By Dr Phillan Zamchiya

Central to David Harvey’s proposition in both his books – The New Imperialism and The Limits to Capital – is that accumulation by dispossession entails the expropriation of the means of production by capital through extra-economic means in the context of neo-liberal capitalism and globalisation.

In my latest journal article available here, I challenge the casual application of Harvey’s famous concept of accumulation by dispossession in explaining the new global processes by which land is enclosed, its users are dispossessed and its mineral resources exploited. 

It can be argued that Harvey’s approach is too broad and materialistic in its attempt to encompass a wide range of contemporary global capitalist processes of dispossession.

However, I neither dismiss the concept wholesale nor inflate it but distil what I consider accumulation by dispossession’s three central features – coercion, non-voluntary consent and corruption – that are useful in explaining new forms of ongoing material and incorporeal dispossession using post-apartheid South Africa as a case study. 

I build on these three features to explain how a triumvirate of traditional leaders, the state and the Ivanplats platinum mine [investor] continue to dispossess marginalised people living on customary land as the mine aims to become the world’s largest producer of platinum group metals. The mine is located on the northern limb of the platinum belt in Limpopo province.

Enriching my view is the original qualitative fieldwork conducted in four phases between October 2016 and November 2019, covering 12 out of the 20 villages affected by Ivanplats.

I found that non-voluntary consent in land acquisitions for mining on customary land under the jurisdiction of traditional authorities is an essential and applicable characteristic of accumulation by dispossession. Non-voluntary consent refers to affected communities accepting investments under undue influence or without adequate information. 

The investor seemed to understand the Chief as the bastion of rural power and “owner” of customary land as in the apartheid era. Consequently, Ivanplats largely consulted with Kgoshi (Chief) Lesiba V. Kekana in charge of the affected villages and his network of traditional leaders instead of the people who held the land rights. 

This narrow consultation approach violated South Africa’s Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act (IPILRA) (No. 31 of 1996) section 2(1), which states that “no person may be deprived of any informal right to land without his or her consent.’ In addition, this violated the international principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

In a context where accountability was absent, corruption – which refers to irregular conduct that benefits the investors and deprives communities – was central to dispossession. The investor allegedly corrupted some government officials and traditional leaders through bribes. For example, the investor gave Chief Kekana R30,000 a month and other benefits. However, the investor incredulously argued that it was money paid to the Chief for holding meetings and facilitating the company’s exercise of its prospecting rights. 

Ivanplats also awarded a rainwater harvesting contract worth R3 million to the wife of a senior government official in the mining department. Ivanplats insisted it followed tender processes, but the explanation did not satisfy the communities. Nationally, the capture of some South African government officials by business elites remains a topical issue. Within this matrix, corruption was not the only dispossession tool.

Coercion was also at the core of dispossession and an inherent but undesirable feature of capitalist expansion. For example, one of the respondents, Moses Madiba, and his wife believed they were shot at their homestead in 2016 for opposing mining investments. 

Madiba narrated: “I was shot by local gangsters paid by the mine, in the top of my left arm. My wife was also shot with three bullets in her breast. This was well-coordinated by the mine, because I am against the way the [mine] is doing business.”

The scars were still visible when I Interviewed him on 21 April 2018. 

Many victims opened cases of attempted murder with the police, but they did nothing. This is consistent with South Africa’s Human Rights Commission’s observations that police usually fail to investigate such incidents.

My approach also extends the analytic frontiers of accumulation by dispossession to include incorporeal dispossession, an important aspect of the dispossession story in Limpopo. Incorporeal dispossessions refer to intangible losses of spiritual capital, heritage, memory and belonging, sometimes through grave relocations. 

I am inclined to share Dineo Skosana’s view that for the capitalist investors, graves are “materially reduced to commodities, movable and replaceable things that stand in a way of profit-making”. However, for the dispossessed communities in Limpopo who believed in the veneration of ancestors’ graves, this had a deeper intangible meaning.

Given the nominal benefits from this extractivist investment, the dispossessed engaged in overt resistance, transcending James Scott’s disguised “everyday forms of resistance”. However, Ivanplats had the backing of the state, which violently thwarted the demonstrations.

Litigation was also integral to the resistance to dispossession, but communities faced financial constraints. There were unequal power relations which reproduced day-to-day capitalist relations of domination.

Rather than dismissing accumulation by dispossession as an overly omnibus and materialistic approach, I attempt to enhance its grounded explanatory power. I do this by crystallising it into three descriptive features – coercion, non-voluntary consent and corruption – to explain material and incorporeal dispossession. 

This approach can easily be used, albeit to varying degrees, to understand processes of dispossession for affected communities living on mineralised customary land under the jurisdiction of traditional leaders across sub-Saharan Africa. 

Click here to access Dr Phillan Zamchiya’s journal article.