A drag, not a curse: Commodities are not always bad for you (The Economist – October 2017)


THE LAMP POSTS in Kliptown, South Africa, do not all stand up straight. One lists awkwardly, laden with cables carrying stolen electricity to a squatters’ settlement nearby. Many families in this suburb of Soweto, a formerly black township in greater Johannesburg, are still crammed into makeshift housing. When it is hot outside, the temperature inside is “times two”, says one resident, who shares six rooms with 20 others. And when it turns cold, the chill inside is also “times two”.

On the other side of the railway tracks the government is investing heavily in Walter Sisulu Square, where in 1955 the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies adopted the Freedom Charter, a statement of principles for a post-apartheid nation.
The charter’s commitments, written in stone on a monument in the square, include demolishing slums and building well-lit suburbs. They also include transferring ownership of the mineral wealth beneath the soil to the people. The contrast between what the charter says and what the slum itself reveals tells you how broken the system is, says one squatter.

The resources beneath South Africa’s soil, including iron ore, precious metals and coal, ought to be an unmitigated blessing. Johannesburg, the city of gold, owes its existence to these riches. Its landscape is still dotted with piles of sandy residue, or “tailings”, from mining and quarrying. The industry accounts for over 20% of South Africa’s exports and employs over 450,000 people. But it also adds to the volatility of South Africa’s economy and the pugnacity of its politics.

Mining and quarrying shrank by 4.7% in 2016, then rebounded, growing by 4.3% year-on-year in the first half of 2017. This improvement partly reflects stronger growth in China, which consumes almost half of the world’s coal, 30% of its gold jewellery and over 40% of its steel. But the industry’s economic prospects remain hostage to its political fortunes.

For the rest of this article: https://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21729865-raw-materials-need-not-undermine-countries-export-them-commodities-are-not-always