Maria Dyveke Styve
Search for other papers by Maria Dyveke Styve in
Current site
Google Scholar
Extractive scars and the lightness of finance

Otobong Nkanga’s artwork The Weight of Scars allows for an interrogation of some of the complex and non-linear connections between mining, finance and racial violence across both time and space. Nkanga’s artwork, where what intuitively looks like a world map bears no resemblance to the ordinary mappings of continents and oceans, and yet is still evocative of land and seas in entirely new shapes, makes us look again at what at first sight appears familiar, to challenge certain taken-for-granted understandings. The title of Nkanga’s 2018 exhibition – ‘To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again’ – of which the work The Weight of Scars forms part, bears a resemblance an expression often heard within mining finance circles in London, Cape Town and Johannesburg, of ‘the hole in the ground that cannot be moved’. The sense of repetition in Nkanga’s title reverberates not only with concerns about boom and bust cycles but also with the way in which mining finance itself carries with it traces of colonial and imperial pasts. This chapter delves into how Nkanga ́s artwork can open up ways of thinking about the relationship between mining finance and racialized capital accumulation that can transverse spatial and temporal boundaries.

The Weight of Scars forms part of a larger exhibition of Otobong Nkanga's work that was held at the Tate St Ives in Cornwall in the UK from September 2019 to January 2020. I had studied images of the tapestry before, but I could never have imagined how delicately the threads shine when you stand in front of it. Gold, silver, orange hues sparkling from the depths of the woven fabrics. What intuitively looks like it could be a map of the world, with shapes and colours evocative of land and seas, bears no resemblance to more familiar mappings of the continents. In entirely new shapes, the all-encompassing oceans and interspersed lands are nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The darker shades of blue might be reminiscent of the little screen on the seat in front of you when you fly long-distance, that indicates the areas of the globe where it is night-time, but the shades here do not follow the same strict pattern created by the earth's rotation in relation to the sun. If the distinction between night and day is blurred, then time zones, and perhaps time itself, become uncertain, invalid and inoperable. Nkanga's tapestry lets us break with linear and simplistic understandings of the movement of time and the relationship between land, extraction and human activities. If the past is no longer simply a past left behind, but one that leaves traces and scars in the present, how does that let us think differently about extractive industries, their colonial histories and the indelible marks they leave? These questions are also posed by Ly (Chapter 12) and by Samaniego and Mantz (Chapter 20). This chapter asks: in what ways can a work of art guide us towards new understandings of extraction, colonialism and financialization? How might Nkanga's work help us to understand the logics of mining finance in places like the financial district of the City of London, and their relationship with the violence of mineral extraction?

Figure 21.1 Otobong Nkanga, ‘The Weight of Scars’ (2015). Tapestry: woven textile/viscose bast, mohair, polyester, bio cotton, linen, acrylic and ten inkjet photographs on Forex plates. Four tapestries 253 × 153 cm each (together 253 × 612 cm).

On either side of Nkanga's tapestry, a collection of arms that look both bolted down and mobile hover over lower bodies cut off in the middle. The mechanical yet also organic-looking arms hold on to a set of lines vaguely suggestive of ropes, and look like they can pull, move and drive processes of extraction. The lines, one seamlessly becoming a pipeline itself, connect black-and-white photographs of different scenes of mining, holes in the ground, cracked soil and brick walls. These photographs placed on top of the tapestry suggest snapshots of specific places and moments in time, that in their photographic form makes a break with the tapestry, while at the same time being tied into it through the lines of connections drawn out between them. The multilayered and montage form itself invites a reading that is not necessarily linear, and that opens up for complex webs of intertwined connections across time and space. In this chapter, I will attempt to move along these lines of connections to show some of the ways in which the relationship between the City of London as a centre of mining finance and the South African mining industry is still infused with the colonial and violent histories of mineral extraction. The main argument that I will make is that if we look at these complex patterns we can see how mining finance continues to rely on a system of extraction that is premised on racial violence and that leaves indelible scars that Nkanga's art works point us towards.

The lightness of finance

The weight of the scars inflicted by mining stands in sharp contrast to the ease and lightness of the world of mining finance professionals in the UK and South Africa. During large international conferences where investors come to meet with mining companies, to a large extent white and male spaces, everything is set up to increase convenience and ease of contact, floating on a sense of lightness far from the impacts of mining where it actually takes place (Styve 2019). Nkanga's tapestry was also exhibited in an earlier exhibition in Chicago in 2018, called ‘To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again’. The title of that exhibition bears a resemblance to one of the expressions I often heard when doing fieldwork within mining finance circles – in London, Cape Town and Johannesburg – of ‘the hole in the ground that cannot be moved’, although with quite different connotations. Within mining finance, the expression refers to the fact that once a mining project has been started, the mine cannot be moved if the circumstances change, and in this sense the investments into a project are quite literally sunk in the ground. The title ‘To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again’ might imply a sense of endless repetitions and perhaps a feeling of futility, as the riches that are carried out of the mines rarely remain with the diggers.

This is quite a different frustration from the one expressed within mining finance, where the problem with the hole in the ground was, rather, that it made investors vulnerable to the changing winds of politics, as the hole, once it has been dug, simply cannot be moved. The tension here is between the desire for global mobility in mining finance, where the drive is towards investing in the most profitable metals and minerals across the world, and the fact that the actual mines are tied down to a particular location where they are subject to changing national politics. The ever-present possibility that national policies might be changed, and new demands for higher taxation or greater local ownership might be instituted, is seen as an important ‘political risk’ factor within mining finance (Gilbert 2020). The spatial rootedness of the mine contrasts with the ambitions of global mobility for mining financiers and the desire to be able to move investments to wherever the next big boom can be found. The sense of repetition in Nkanga's title also reverberates with the concerns about boom and bust cycles in mining finance circles. While much of the focus in mining finance is on how to minimize risks and maximize profits, and in that sense is very future oriented, the temporalities of mining finance also contain contradictory relations to both past and future. The desire for policy certainty, for instance, can be understood as a desire for the future to look as much as possible like the past in the political domain. The historical legacies of mining in the places where extraction actually takes place are, however, rarely given attention by mining financiers, nor do they figure in their risk assessments and valuations. As Kalba (Chapter 18) shows, financiers in London have a long history of denying their entanglements with the patterns of earthly and bodily scarring that follow their allocations of capital.

The echoes of history

The ease and lightness of the world of mining finance stands in sharp contrast to the historical reverberations of the mining industry in South Africa. The long historical trajectory of mining in South Africa can be traced back to the establishment of the industry in the three last decades of the nineteenth century. While diamonds were the first to be discovered in Kimberley in 1867, it was after gold was discovered on the Rand (in what would later become Johannesburg) that investments from abroad started to play a key role (Cain and Hopkins 1980: 487). The expansion of finance capital that came via London into the South African mining industry should be seen in the context of the increasing financialization of the British national economy in the late nineteenth century (Cain and Hopkins 1987: 19). The period from the 1870s, at least until the First World War, was characterized by the fluidity and global expansion of financial capital.

The establishment of the mining industry in South Africa had devastating consequences and created severe ruptures of social relations within the entire southern African region. After imperial conquest and wars over the whole of the nineteenth century, the vast dispossession of land culminated with the 1913 Land Act that dispossessed Africans of over 90% of the land in South Africa. The nascent mining industry was in severe need of labourers, and the dispossession of land, as well as the imposition of taxes, contributed to the proletarianization of Black mineworkers through forcing African men to start work on the mines (Magubane 2007: 203; Marks and Trapido 1979: 64; Terreblanche 2002: 259, 396–397). A migrant labour system was put in place that recruited mineworkers from the entire region, in particular from Mozambique and Lesotho, and from within South Africa many came from the Eastern Cape (First 1983: 30; Wolpe 1972). The lives of the workers on the mines were strictly controlled, through the establishment of mine compounds where they had to live, and ‘pass laws’ that meant they could not move around freely. Combined with entrenched imperial racism, the way that the mines were organized contributed to an extremely racialized pattern of capital accumulation on the mines, where profits were dependent on the super-exploitation of Black workers (Ncube 1985: 17–18; Feinstein 2005: 67; Turrell 1986: 48). This also then means that the financial gains that were made in London on investments in the South African mining industry relied precisely on the anti-Black nature of how the industry operated.

From the early days of mining, the access to cheap Black labour had been the basis of the South African economy, with dispossession and proletarianization used to ensure a labour force for the industry. However, by the time these processes had been completed by the 1970s, labour became more expensive and a shift took place to replace labour with more capital-intensive production. The result has been rising unemployment and ensuing increases in poverty (Terreblanche 2002: 378–380). While the shift to more capital-intensive production happened throughout the economy, the mining industry, and in particular gold and platinum production, has not been able to mechanize on a large scale and is still reliant on having a large number of mineworkers, as it was in the late nineteenth century (Stewart 2013, 51).

When the first free elections were held in 1994 and the brutal apartheid system finally came to an end, the optimism in South Africa was effervescent. More than twenty-five years later, however, there has been increasing anger and frustration at the continued glaring inequalities. Despite the growth of a new Black elite, capital accumulation and wealth distribution remain highly racialized. In 2012, a particular event sent shockwaves throughout the country. During a strike against the London-listed company Lonmin, thirty-four black mineworkers were killed by police forces, and another seventy-eight were wounded, on 16 August 2012 in Marikana in the north-west of South Africa. The Marikana massacre was reminiscent of a past where Black resistance was met with the violent response of the state, and showed how the mining industry, and the world of mining finance that underwrites it, continues to operate on anti-Black foundations that rely on racial violence in moments of crisis (Styve 2019). The way in which Marikana entered the imaginary of global business and current affairs media is examined in more detail by Alami (Chapter 10).

While the contemporary political economy of South Africa of course differs from the time when the industry was established, some of the core contradictions and problems with the extroversion of the economy could be argued to have structural roots in the mineral discoveries in the late nineteenth century. The global reach and intensified growth of financial capital since the late 1970s also have a clear historical precedent in the period of financial expansion in the late nineteenth century. Increasing financialization and large-scale illegal capital flight, especially connected to mining, has been a key feature of the post-apartheid political economy of South Africa (Ashman, Fine and Newman 2011). Today we see large transnational corporations, instead of the iconic mining magnates and family dynasties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of which Anglo-American is a prime example. Alongside its corporate modernization, Anglo-American has reinvented itself as a putative agent of apartheid's demise, rather than a linchpin in South Africa's racist policy of ‘separate development’ which served to provide mines with cheap labour (Rajak 2014). Capital from the mining industry has now expanded globally from South Africa through London, instead of finance capital being channelled to South Africa as in the early period. While it may no longer move only from the City of London to South Africa's mining belts, much of this money still moves through the City of London, which has been able to maintain its position as a key international financial centre after the demise of the formal British empire (Palan 2015; Palan and Stern-Weiner 2012). After the Marikana massacre in 2012, the Alternative Information and Development Centre demonstrated that terminating a Bermuda-based profit-shifting arrangement could have freed up funds required to meet the wage-increase demands of the strikers (Forslund 2015). Like the levers that operate sites of extraction across time zones in Nkanga's tapestry, the lightness of finance as it moves through Britain's ‘second empire’ of offshore jurisdictions is inextricably linked to the violent weight of extraction.

In one of the performances shown on video at her 2019 installation, we see Nkanga facing the closed-down Tsumeb mine in Namibia, which is also the mine where the photographs on the tapestry are from. Balancing on her left foot, her right arm holding her other leg pulled up behind her while her left arm is stretched out towards the horizon, she balances what looks to be mineral rocks on her head and sings to the mine. In yet another video, Nkanga explains how the performance was created spontaneously when she visited the mine and saw the hole and dent in the space. She explains how she began singing to the mine to appease it, to call out the names of the minerals and ask for the original names. The Tsumeb mine is one of the most mineral-rich places in the world, and was originally mined by the Ovambo before German colonization began at the end of the nineteenth century. Nkanga speaks of the weight of scars – mental scars, emotional scars, lasting scars on the landscape from extraction and our endless addiction to resources. In another performance (also shown on video), her voice can be heard saying: ‘Our future is to live with bruises, uneven, hapless, splintery, earthly, sometimes brittle […], malleable, flexible, elastic.’

The bruises and scars left from extraction and colonization leave indelible marks that persist over time. Otobong Nkanga's tapestry likewise points us towards how beneath the ease and lightness of the world of mining finance lies the weight of scars that reflect how the past still reverberates in the present, even if mining financiers disavow these legacies, concerned only with ‘policy certainty’. However, Nkanga's work might also tell us something about potential openings, ways of creating connections and seeing the world anew that might defy the profit-hunting ways of finance capital, or at least make visible the bruises that repetitive cycles of extraction leave behind.

Further resources

Alexander, P. , Lekgowa, T. , Mmope, B. , Sinwell, L. and Xezwi, B. (2012) Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer. Johannesburg: Jacana.

Forslund, D. (2015) ‘The Bermuda connection: Profit shifting, inequality and unaffordability at Lonmin 1999–2012. Johannesburg: AIDC Alternative Information and Development Centre.

Nkanga, O. (2017) ‘Imagining the Scars of a Landscape’. (accessed 25 January 2022).

Oswald, M. (2017) The Spider's Web: Britain's Second Empire [Documentary]. (accessed 22 December 2020).

SAHO (2013a) ‘Timeline of land dispossession and segregation in South Africa 1800–1899’. South African History Online. (accessed 21 December 2020).

SAHO (2013b) ‘Land: Dispossession, resistance and restitution’. South African History Online. (accessed 21 December 2020).

SAHO (2015) ‘The mineral revolution in South Africa’. South African History Online. (accessed 21 December 2020).

Works cited

Ashman, S. , Fine, B. and Newman, S. (2011) ‘Amnesty International? The Nature, Scale and Impact of Capital Flight from South Africa.’ Journal of Southern African Studies 37(1): 7–25.

Cain, P. J. and Hopkins, A. G. (1980) ‘The political economy of British expansion overseas’. The Economic History Review 33(4): 463–490.

Cain, P. J. and Hopkins, A. G. (1987) ‘Gentlemanly capitalism and British expansion overseas II: The new imperialism, 1850–1945’. The Economic History Review 40(1): 1–26.

Feinstein, C. H. (2005) An Economic History of South Africa: Conquest, Discrimination and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

First, R. (1983) Black Gold: The Mozambican Miner, Proletarian and Peasant. Sussex: The Harvester Press.

Forslund, D. (2015) ‘The Bermuda connection: Profit shifting, inequality and unaffordability at Lonmin 1999–2012. Johannesburg: AIDC Alternative Information and Development Centre.

Gilbert, P. R. (2020) ‘Expropriating the future: Turning ore deposits and legitimate expectations into assets’. In K. Birch and F. Muniesa (eds), Assetization: Turning Things into Assets in Technoscientific Capitalism. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, pp. 173–201.

Magubane, B. M. (2007) Race and the Construction of the Dispensable Other. Pretoria: Unisa Press.

Marks, S. and Trapido, S. (1979) ‘Lord Milner and the South African state’. History Workshop 8: 50–80.

Ncube, D. (1985) Black Trade Unions in South Africa. Johannesburg: Skotaville Publishers.

Palan, R. (2015) ‘The second British empire and the re-emergence of global finance’. In S. Halperin and R. Palan (eds), Legacies of Empire: The Imperial Roots of the Contemporary Global Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 50–68.

Palan, P. and Stern-Weiner, J. (2012) ‘Britain's second empire’. (accessed 5 March 2018; URL no longer active 14 September 2022).

Rajak, D. (2014) ‘Corporate memory: Historical revisionism, legitimation and the invention of tradition in a multinational mining company’. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37(2): 259–280.

Stewart, P. (2013) ‘“Kings of the mine”: Rock drill operators and the 2012 strike wave on South African mines’. South African Review of Sociology 44(3): 42–63.

Styve, M. D. (2019) ‘From Marikana to London: The anti-blackness of mining finance’. PhD thesis, Social Anthropology, University of Bergen.

Terreblanche, S. (2002) A History of Inequality in South Africa 1652–2002. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Turrell, Rob . 1986. ‘Diamonds and mining labour in South Africa 1869–1910’. History Today 35(5): 45–49.

Wolpe, H. (1972) ‘Capitalism and cheap labour-power in South Africa: From segregation to apartheid’. Economy and Society 1(4): 425–456.

  • Collapse
  • Expand

All of MUP's digital content including Open Access books and journals is now available on manchesterhive.


The entangled legacies of empire

Race, finance and inequality


All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 241 185 32
PDF Downloads 84 24 0