This is the first in a short series of blogs on the history and legacy of Anglo American around the world by LMN’s Communications Coordinator, Saul Jones

Most of us are familiar with the basic outline of the story of South African apartheid – from the late 1940s until the 1990s, a system designed to protect and entrench white minority rule enforced racial segregation, systemic discrimination and violent oppression against black South Africans. Less familiar however is the story of those who funded, supported, and benefited from this system. Who provided the funding for the white supremacist minority to enforce their dominance? What became of the capital gained through the brutal exploitation of black labour? And how does the legacy of this dark period of human history continue to play out in the global economy of today? While the answers to these questions are far-reaching and could fill several books, one example provides a very telling illustration of how the exploitation of the ‘global South’, and Southern Africa in particular, continues along colonial lines that connect directly with the exploitative and abusive history of apartheid.

Founded in 1917 by Ernest Oppenheimer, the company known today as Anglo American PLC was originally the Anglo American Corporation of South Africa. With political and financial backing from both the British and US governments, Oppenheimer’s company quickly set about consolidating control of the richest gold fields in South Africa, before moving on to acquire majority ownership of Cecil Rhodes’ diamond empire De Beers. While the nation remained part of the British Empire until 1961, South Africa had established its independence in 1910, along with its own whites-only government. As a wealthy and rapidly growing entity, the new Anglo American Group developed deep and lasting ties with the relatively young government apparatus, and, by the time apartheid became official policy in 1948, the company had emerged as a key player in South Africa’s economy; along with its stranglehold on gold and diamonds, Anglo American also had vast holdings in copper and had become a driving force of the industrialisation of the region at the cost of starvation wages and racial discrimination. With influence extending to multiple sectors, including finance, agriculture, and manufacturing, mid-century Anglo American was a pillar of South African wealth and power, and one that would continue to benefit from the oppression of black South Africans.

Throughout the apartheid regime, mining formed the backbone of South Africa’s economy. As elsewhere in the country, black workers in the mining industry were treated as second-class citizens, and, as it continued to grow its wealth and influence, Anglo American relied heavily on the labour of people it could treat worse and pay less than its white employees. The company’s labour practices perpetuated a system of racial inequality, where black workers were systematically marginalized and treated as disposable commodities. They were subjected to gruelling work hours, inadequate safety measures, and minimal access to healthcare. Efforts by black workers to unionize and advocate for their rights in this period were suppressed, with Anglo American leveraging its economic power and influence with the state whenever intervention was required to protect its interests. 

By 1970, the Anglo Group owned South Africa’s five biggest mining houses, as well as major shares in five of the top ten companies in the manufacturing industry. In terms of market capitalisation value, eight of South Africa’s ten largest companies belonged to Anglo American. By the fall of apartheid in 1994, Anglo American controlled more than half of all private industry in South Africa. When white minority political rule finally ended, the prospect of nationalisation threatened the company. Using a subsidiary called Minorco (Minerals and Resources Corporation), Anglo American attempted to downplay its connection with the apartheid regime while transferring assets, and intensifying its global expansion into Europe, the Americas and Australia.

While it’s certainly true that Anglo American was not the only corporation to benefit from the racial segregation of South Africa, its size, position, and influence single it out as a useful case study. The resources it provided the South African state enabled a system of racial discrimination, economic exploitation, and social injustice. Its collaboration with this system in turn enabled Anglo American to exploit black labour and to continue to grow. Without its foundations in colonialism and exploitation, without the legal enabling of its labour practices and abuses, how could Anglo American become the global $32.3 billion giant it is today? The money it made in South Africa in the 20th century continues to circulate in the mining economy and continues to give Anglo American the power and influence it wields today. 

Currently, the company has 56 operations in 15 different countries, mainly in Southern Africa, South America and Australia and operates under the motto “re-imagining mining to improve people’s lives”. While it has done a lot of work to clean up its image, there are many who feel that Anglo American has not improved their lives in any way – accusations of workers’ rights abuses, environmental damage, pollution, and unethical practices continue to follow the company across the globe.

For more information on the links between Anglo American and South Africa, see our Resisting Mining Book Club event on Anglo American and the Rise of Modern South Africa.