Areas with massive chrome ore deposits have become scarred, dystopian free-for-alls.
Twenty-five years ago, to get to school in the morning, Godfrey Molwana would walk 2 miles from his home in Witrandjie, a small village in South Africa. His route passed through communal grazing lands for cattle and goats—a rolling expanse of acacia trees and hardy shrubs, interspersed with the corn plots of subsistence farmers. Some families had graves on the land. “This area was for everyone,” Molwana recalled.
Close to the village lay the remains of a chrome mine, with derelict buildings and dumps of discarded ore where children from the community would play. Chrome is essential for manufacturing stainless steel. South Africa has the largest deposits in the world, but this mine, no longer profitable, had been shuttered for decades. Some older men in the community had worked there as laborers, earning the low wages designated for Black people during apartheid.
The ground beneath the village was rich, but its residents had remained in poverty, even after White rule ended in 1994. Then, in the mid-2000s, a new market for chrome arrived in Witrandjie (pronounced “VIT-rind-key”). It began with a company that purchased the old mine dumps and hauled them away for reprocessing.
Later, more outsiders showed up, promising lucrative payouts for villagers who allowed the establishment of new mines. Here, it appeared, was an opportunity to profit directly from mining, an industry that had contributed greatly to the dispossession of Black South Africans in the past. Excavators moved onto the grazing area, and cargo trucks departed with massive loads of ore.