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BHP-Billiton: a corporation founded on apartheid plunder

25 April 2001

 

BY NORM DIXON

In late March, newspaper headlines hailed the announcement that giant Australian-owned mining, oil and steel corporation BHP and the huge Anglo-South African mining and base metals conglomerate Billiton had agreed to merge, forming the world's largest mining and second-largest resources corporation. The new monolith is worth A$57 billion at current stock market prices.

None of the capitalist “market analysts” who have churned out thousands of words on the merger thought it necessary to point out that Billiton's accumulated capital is the product of decades of collaboration with the racist apartheid system in South Africa.

Billiton's parent company Gencor formally came into being with the amalgamation of two companies formed in the late 19th century, the General Mining and Finance Corporation (later known as Genmin) and the Union Corporation.

Billiton was purchased by Gencor from Royal Dutch/Shell in 1994. In 1997, Gencor chose Billiton to be its off-shore investment subsidiary listed on the London Stock Exchange. Gencor's extensive non-precious metals assets (aluminium, titanium, nickel, chrome and manganese alloys, and coal) in South Africa, Mozambique, Australia, Colombia, Brazil, Suriname and North America were transferred to Billiton.

Gencor's gold and platinum holdings — Gengold and Impala Platinum — remain with the parent company listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange.

Capitalism and apartheid

South Africa's mining capitalists did not just benefit from the racist system, they helped design it. In the late 1890s, Genmin's owner George Albu proposed that legislation be passed to force black South Africans to become cheap labourers. “The law is not the same for the kaffir as for the white man”, Albu stated. Albu's views were shared by all the country's mining bosses.

In its submission to the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings into business and apartheid, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) explained: “Capitalism in South Africa was built and sustained precisely on the basis of the systematic racial oppression of the majority of our people ... Employers collaborated with the apartheid regime from the outset, supported apartheid in all its manifestations and benefited from apartheid capitalism with its exploitative and oppressive nature ... Far from being innocent of racial oppression, it was precisely the captains of industry — particularly those associated with the diamond and gold-mining industry — who pioneered many of the core features of what later came to be known as apartheid.”

In 1913, the infamous land act was passed that reserved 87% of South Africa's land for the white minority and confined the vast majority of black South Africans to “native reserves”.

The basic thrust of the capitalists' policy, COSATU noted, “was clear and explicit: to create a land shortage in the native reserves so as to force rural African males into service on the mines, white agriculture and industry. These migrant workers were always seen to be single males, temporarily employed in the `white' areas at wages which mine owners, farmers and industrialists ... could afford. African women and children were to remain in the reserves, supposedly living off the land. The pass laws were to be strictly applied to ensure that `surplus' or `idle' `natives' were promptly returned to the reserves ... This was the system which apartheid sought to preserve and modernise after 1948.”

This allowed the bosses to pay very low wages that did not take into account workers' expenses in raising families and looking after elderly relatives. Wages did not take account of the workers' periods of ill health, unemployment and retirement. These costs were borne by relatives, mainly women, in the “bantustans” in which millions of black people were forcibly removed to.

South African big business systematically denied trade union rights to black workers and worked hand in glove with the racist South African state's repressive bodies to subjugate and entrench the “inferior status” of black workers.

Especially after the outbreak of mass strikes in 1973 and the 1976 Soweto uprisings, noted COSATU's TRC submission, “cooperation between the police and bosses in crushing strikes, often violently, was commonplace. Mass arrests and dismissals were the order of the day ... The [police] security branch usually dealt with operations affecting trade unions ... Operations ranged from disappearances and abductions [of trade union activists] to the theft of trade union subscriptions to a major wave of arson and bombings of [trade union] offices ... There was no discernible action by the bosses to distance themselves from the naked brutality of the apartheid system.”

Gencor was no different. On New Year's Day 1986, 30,000 workers at Impala Platinum (Implats) mines in Bophuthatswana went on strike for higher pay and other improvements. Implats refused to recognise the workers' union because it chose to abide by the “independent” apartheid-created Bophuthatswana's anti-union laws (while continuing to recognise the South African-based whites-only union). Six days after the strike began, 25,000 workers were dismissed. Implats permitted Bophuthatswana riot police to attack workers with teargas and dogs. Similar mass dismissals and repression took place during strikes at Gencor's mines in Bophuthatswana in 1991.

In its final report, the TRC found that the South African mining industry's “direct involvement with the state in the formulation of oppressive policies or practices that resulted in low labour costs (or otherwise boosted profits) can be described as first-order involvement [in apartheid] ... The shameful history of subhuman compound [hostel] conditions, brutal suppression of striking workers, racist practices and meagre wages is central to understanding the origins and nature of apartheid.”

Superprofits

The scale of the South African mining capitalists' disregard for workers' lives is breathtaking: approximately 69,000 mineworkers died in accidents between 1900 and 1993, and more than 1 million were seriously injured.

The most chilling example of how South Africa's bosses put profits before workers' safety occurred on September 15, 1986, at Gencor's Kinross gold mine. In what was the worst accident in South African mining history, 177 mineworkers were killed in an underground polyurethane fire. Shortly after the disaster, the names of white miners were released. The dead black miners were identified by ethnic group as: “Sotho 45, Shangaan (Mozambican) 21, Pondo 20, Hlubi 6, Venda 1, Xhosa 29, Tswana 14, Malawi 15, Pedi 1".

Gencor management obstructed and sabotaged the investigation of the tragedy. In a poorly prosecuted case, the company was acquitted of culpable homicide. The only fine imposed was R100,000 against the worker accused of starting the fire.

In 1987, another 63 workers were killed in an accident at Gencor's St Helena gold mine.

The symbiotic relationship between capitalism and apartheid resulted in annual profit rates of up to 40% for local and international big business. The source was not hard to detect. As Professor Sampie Terreblanche told the TRC, “the per capita income of whites was 10.6 times higher than African per capita income in 1946/47, white income was 15 times higher in 1975".

Gencor and the Broederbond

South African corporations were able to accumulate vast fortunes from the superexploitation of black workers. By 1994, mining giant Anglo American Corporation and four other conglomerates — the tobacco-based Rembrandt and insurance companies Sanlam, Old Mutual and Liberty Life — controlled 85% of the shares listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

The Afrikaner Broederbond (a secret society of ruling-class Afrikaans-speakers in the top ranks of the National Party, the civil service, the military and police, big business and the Afrikaans-language white media and universities) and the Afrikaner-owned Sanlam insurance company (which controlled Gencor) worked closely with the NP to promote Afrikaner capitalism after 1948.

Sanlam, the Volkskas bank and Old Mutual mobilised the savings of Afrikaner farmers and workers and invested them in Afrikaner big businesses. Sanlam's assets rose from R30 million in 1948 to R3.1 billion in 1981, and companies it controlled had assets worth R19.3 billion.

Sanlam and Gencor were pillars of the apartheid establishment until the system's formal demise in 1994. Sanlam, founded in 1918, was run by National Party founder W.A. Holmeyer until his death in 1953. A long list of NP leaders and ministers served on the Sanlam board and the many companies it controlled — including Gencor.

Sanlam managing director Desmond Smith admitted to the TRC in 1997 that the conglomerate's first priority was the interests of its shareholders and policyholders. Sanlam management was bent on protecting those interests, hence its collaboration with the National Party and the racist apartheid regime. Smith said that the rhetoric of nationalisation and socialism espoused by those in the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle was irreconcilable with Sanlam's commitment to a free market.

In the early 1970s, Wim de Villiers — Sanlam vice-chair, Gencor chairperson, a key member of the Cape NP establishment and mentor of apartheid's brutal second-last president, P.W. Botha — championed “cooperation between the public and private sector in an overarching strategy to ward off Marxism”. It was more than symbolic that in 1977 famed Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko met his death at the hands of police torturers in room 619 on the sixth floor of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth.

This cooperation reached its most vicious peak with PW Botha's 1978-84 “Total Strategy” to defeat the liberation movement, in which the military and police brass, the top business people and leading white politicians combined in the semi-secret National Security Management System to defend “free enterprise” and white supremacy.

In 1986, Gencor's executive chairperson, Derek Keys, moved directly into the apartheid government as minister of economic coordination, trade and industry.

As the anti-apartheid movement was making apartheid “ungovernable”, in 1988 Fred du Plessis, Sanlam chairperson and a top adviser to President Botha, advocated “reforms” that would help divide the black population by creating a black “middle class”.

In mid-1992, Keys became finance minister. Following South Africa's historic first democratic election in 1994, the African National Congress-led government reappointed Keys as finance minister as a signal that the new government would not deviate from its predecessor's pro-capitalist economic policies.

Pleading ill health, Keys rejected pleas from the ANC to remain as finance minister and resigned in 1994. Keys subsequently served a term as chief executive of Billiton.

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