BHP-Billiton: a corporation founded on apartheid plunder

25 April 2001

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.”


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.

From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #445 25 April 2001.

Submitted by Claudine Fouri… (not verified) on Sun, 05/06/2012 - 14:05


This is a most interesting article and very explanatory.

You say you are Marxist / Communist, I believe it is no different to British Capitialism at all.

I worked in the Mining Industry too, as a Draughtswoman, and as a Coloured person, the few of us of only 1 Black and 15 White Afrikaner, 10 Coloured, including myself and I found in the entire industry in Johannesburg. I know precisely what the office politics were about, because I had to go to over 60 companies, to work at, including 4 in London and 5 in the Netherlands in 2002, due to racist Black Empowerment Policies.

I certainly hope that you believe in Freedom of speech and publish everybody's views, unlike the British Apartheid controllers, who have removed the websites of DA and Leader Magazine, because they do not believe in Freedom of speech and the truth that I have to say about the evil ones who owe me/us money - the AAC/De Beers.......& their bosses, for having stolen my forebearers properties and their Apartheid policies of oppression, lake of opportunities, low rates/salaries, no unemployment, leave, ....., unfair dismissals, no job opportunities as they had only employed, Firstly, White British only Managers, Section Leaders, Draughtsmen, Secretaries....., then other White foreigners, then only White Afrikaners, then Coloured people, in the Offices.

I got on well with all of the Engineers whom I worked with and they approved of all of my Drawings first time.

This was the system, policies and practices, which eminated from the British governments,Oxford University, Cambridge University...... etc. and as a single-parent Coloured woman, whose work was of excellent quality - even if I have to say so myself, because I was never asked to redo a single Technical Drawing, I was asked to provide, but I was the only person or the first, to be told that they did not have any more work for me, yet they kept the foreign, White staff and contractors on, for years, despite the fact that they were doing no work whatsoever and just chatting to each other all day long. They were also then allowed to have holidays and still return to secured, paid permanent or contract positions, going on overseas holidays, allowed to use the office telephones more than twice a day, but I/we never was/were - as per your indications of above, in our own country as well.

They were also thus able to afford to live in the expensive White areas too, and this is all that I used to even go and talk to the NP Director of Manpower about in Johannesburg at my own initiative, after I was assisted by the organisers of the NMP [National Manpower Commission's] three day Conference in Pretoria in 1991. I saw the said advert in the newspaper and as I was unemployed, I called them and told them that I had to be present too, but that I was unable to pay the said R1,300:00 fee. The Afrikaner gentleman then took my no and called me abut an hour later, to inform me that, they had managed to get Gencor, to sponsor me.
I thanked them and Cosatu said on TV news, that there were boycotted because they had wanted to Chair the conference. I attended and then saw that Adrian Bird arrived with about 10 Black males, contrary to their press announcement of the night before.

After the Chairman, Mr Barker, made his opening address and welcomed Cosatu for attending, I asked the first question which was, "When are the foreigners going to be stopped from being given our jobs and being paid more than us, South African's?"

Needless to say, during each of the tea and lunch breaks we had, all three day's, I had of the other delegates, including a Black male who was from the USA, representing some American Government organisation, who also wanted to know who I was, and who said to me on the third day, "do you know what, you really should meet Hilary Clinton, because you will get on very well with her. She also enjoy talking about politics."

After the third day's deliberations, we were asked if we were interested - to then write out any proposals we may have for the drafting of new Labour Laws.
I did no see anybody else stay to do so, but I certainly jumped to the occassion, because I had so much interest in it, and it affected my children and I as well, since when I had begun working in 1977, including all of the Draughtspersons, countrywide, whom I was representing, as a one-woman trade unionist in the Technical Engineering Field, and all of the other workers too who were not represented there as my proposals were basically generalised.

They had to supply me with five pages, to do so and I was most pleased and felt that it was truly worth my while having attended and two months later, I received 5 Books concerning the said conference, including the prospective new Labour Laws, of which all that I had proposed, I was so pleased to see, had also been included, therein.

In 1992, I received and invite from the Human Sciences Research council to present a paper on Maths, Science nd Technology, in South Africa. I was taken by surprise but did so, nonetheless. When I presented it, one of the delegates said that something I had just said "that the Corporations'do not inform the government as to what type of skills are required in the foreseable future, so as to them inform the schools and colleges & universities and to stop recruiting foreigners for our jobs, because we need the money too."
This British male stood up immediately after I asked him which company he was from and he replied AAC, and I said that I was there as well, and he stormed out, back to the office in Johannebsurg.

They were so decent to me, that they even posted me a copy of th enewspaper artices which had my speech in it.

In 1992 and 1993, I occassionally arranged appointments, which were allocated to me immediately, with the then Director of Manpower in Johannesburg, to discuss my/our problems of discrimination against me/us,by AAC and they even said that I should set up my own trade union. I told them that that would not be easy, because there were not many of us, that we were working at various companies and that i would be very difficult because the British and British South African bosses were bound to find out, because we shared offices with these other staff/contractors and then e would be black-listed, which was a known AAC practice too. You would then not be able to get work in the Draughting Field again, which is precisely what happened to myself, in 1993, after the Anglo Bosses had seen me in the Sunday Times, fighting the government non-violently, since 1990, for the Restitution of my one grandmother's over 300 properties in Johannesburg, which they had taken from her in 1958-1962, after I had discovered my proofs to the effect in the government archives.

Anglo Bosses then told me to leave immediately "because I was always setting precedents in the country". I was then not offered another contract since by the Britihs agents or comanies and had to resort to normal office work, instead, but that too was not forthcoming, because then the ANC-SACP said that companies had to employ Black people and I therefore could not get work in Johannesburg anymore. So once again, we are being discriminated against.

In 1997, I had also handed in my statement to the TRC, regards my similar complaints as you have stated here, against us South African Draughtspersons, but they chose not to have it addressed, for their own discriminatory, ANC-SACP reasons.

So, when are you guys going to do the same as above, to AAC...De Beers.....too?
Is it because they are British, that you are not doing the same to them too, or because they are in cahoots in secret deals with ANC-SACP, for Black people only now, while we Coloured people, because I see hat there are o Coloured people appointed to Board memberships either, and are still oppressed and disadvantaged, when Southern Africa in fact,originally belongs to the minority Coloured people?
I dislike gangsterism/bullying by the masses against minorities, who are the non-violent people, anway.