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Rare Pollution And Profit

Rare earths, along with its invasive mining and refining procedures, could link Africa to the heart of the global technological revolution.

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Kuantan, Malaysia, seems a long way from the translucent dusk and rich red earth of peaceful Malawi. Standing in the heart of an ancient swamp the daylight is fading to an impenetrable gloom. Seeping through my toes in the dusk is brackish black peat water.

If it wasn’t for the stifling humidity and the call of a fish eagle over the pristine distant forest I could be in a stinking bog in the Scottish Hebrides. To the north of the ‘Black Jewel’ forests of southern Malaysia, where I stand, the brilliant LED lights of a remote state of the art refinery glow through the Asian night.

Over its metal ramparts, migrant Malaysian workers scurry over scaffolding like ants. They are part of a race that is seeing the world’s biggest mining and technology companies scour the ends of the earth to break China’s stranglehold on rare earths – a band of obscure but increasingly strategic metals integral to our technological world.

Today, this dank and rather obscure corner of Malaysia represents the new frontier for refining rare earths – a group of 17 largely similar metallic-chemical elements used in products from smartphones and televisions to hybrid-car batteries. This plant has been built to refine ore from the Mount Weld mine deep in the Australian desert, 2,500 miles away.

Inside these humble rocks from the outback are rare-earth minerals, crucial ingredients for smartphones, as well as wind turbines, hybrid cars, and night-vision goggles. Minerals such as neodymium are used in magnets that make phone and laptop speakers vibrate to create sound. Or europium, a phosphor that creates the bright red on an iPhone screen. Let’s not forget cerium which makes our perfect metal smartphones shiny and new as they move along the assembly line.

The Malaysian refinery’s backers, Lynas, believe they will eventually be able to meet nearly a third of the world’s demand for rare earth materials here. Most crucially, Kuantan’s refinery is the first rare earth ore processing plant to be built outside China in nearly three decades.

It’s arrival, and the decision by China to scrap its quota system restricting exports of rare earth minerals after losing a World Trade Organization case, could also signal Africa’s entry into the burgeoning market. Lynas believe they are backing a clear winner as the global demand for technology reaches new heights. Yet it is a venture not without risk. Historically, rare earths have proven tricky to process.

As Malaysia learned the hard way a few decades ago, refining rare earth ore usually leaves thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste behind. As a consequence the west has largely left the dirty work to Chinese refineries. The world’s reluctance to process rare earths has meant that China now mines and refines at least 90% of the global supply – allowing Beijing a virtual monopoly that has handed them a global trade weapon in an increasingly high-tech world.

Last September, China imposed a two-month embargo on rare earth shipments to Japan during a territorial dispute, and for a short time even blocked some shipments to the United States and Europe. It’s an environmental and economic backstory that does much to explain Lynas’ $230-million investment into the world’s most advanced rare earth refinery but one that also concerns environmentalists.

Critics of the Lynas plant claim it will generate 28,000 tons of solid waste containing radioactive by-products annually. The most controversial element in the waste cocktail, claim Greenpeace and local campaigners, is thorium, a mildly radioactive element that is toxic in large doses and easily spread through wind and water. Exposure to thorium is tied to increased risk of cancer. Although the sprawling plant is located on the Gebeng industrial estate, about 30,000 people live within a two-kilometer radius and 700,000 reside within 25 kilometers of the refinery.

Lynas claim that the final waste material will have levels of radioactivity low enough to allow it to be transported overseas. A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also assessed the Kuantan plant and judged it to meet all safety standards.

Here, along the Andaman coast, the debate ploughs on. In many ways it feels like I have been here before. In 2006, I, like many other correspondents, obsessed over coltan, traveling across Goma and Kivu as rebel groups stationed throughout the eastern Democratic Republic Congo waged war on both one another and the government over that most pliable of soft metals – coltan – placing bonded slaves and kidnapped children into the supply chains of major electronic firms who sought it.

Coltan’s value, like rare earths, was, at the time, hard to understand. Short for columbite-tantalite, it is an ore that takes on heat-resistant properties when it gets refined. It’s also capable of holding a high electrical charge for a long time. Both characteristics make it an ideal component in circuitry design, particularly in smartphones and other electronic devices, which constantly need to improve battery life.

For NGO’s coltan was the poster boy of the so-called 3TGs: tantalum (coltan), tin, tungsten and gold, all used extensively in the electronics industry. To many within the electronics industry, coltan and other conflict minerals is an old narrative. But the truth is Africa’s entanglement with potentially damaging technology minerals might actually just be beginning.

Our obsession with technology means our need for rare earths can only grow exponentially. Today, geologists also believe Africa has more than half the world’s deposits of carbonatites, the type of rock formation seen as the prime hunting ground for rare earths.

Another advantage Africa, in particular South Africa, offers is vast amounts of monazite sands left over from other mining operations from which rare earths can be extracted. The Great Western Minerals Group’s Steenkampskraal project in South Africa, for example, has some of the highest concentrations of certain types of rare earths of any mine outside of China.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its relative low-profile in the mining sector, the most promising site on the continent is the Kangankunde Hill region of Malawi. According to the US Geological Survey and Lynas, who have interests in the southern African nation, the potential is significant.

According to Will Dawes, Chief Executive Officer of Canadian company Mkango Resources, Malawi could become Africa’s largest rare earth producer.

“Malawi ticks the boxes in terms of resource potential, a stable political environment, infrastructure and government support,” he says.

Dawes believes there are at least five potential major rare earth mines in Malawi, of which Mkango’s Songwe Hill project is the most advanced. It is undeniably a factor that could transform one of Africa’s most historically weak economies but also bring considerable environmental concerns.

As with processing rare earths, extracting individual elements from the host mineral’s chemistry is a complex and energy-intensive process, involving strong acids and other hazardous chemicals. Radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium are often found alongside rare earth elements, and these can end up in the ‘tailings’ – a toxic stew of waste products from the refinement process.

Rare earths must be separated and purified using hydro-metallurgical techniques and acid baths. As a consequence, the foul waters contain radioactive elements which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs and leukemia. But, with Malawi’s mining promise comes a lead lining to their economic cloud at least.

As a consequence of rare earths’ troubled history, major corporations like Siemens, Samsung and Toyota are already designing new products that use fewer rare earths or substitute materials.

It is also predicted that recycle rates of rare earths from existing products, very low because of the expense and complexity involved, may also increase in future. Honda, for example, has already begun extracting more than 80% of its rare earth materials from nickel-metal hydride batteries.

Julian Kirby, lead campaigner for Friends of the Earth’s Make It Better initiative, which aims to make companies come clean about their supply chains, is adamant that “environmental costs must be factored into the prices of rare earths”, creating an incentive to recycle existing materials. Kirby also believes there should be a change in reporting by major firms to ensure it includes non-financial information. Only then, he claims, will electronics manufacturers take greater responsibility.

In Malaysia, rare earth refining on their doorstep has split public opinion.

To date, more than 1.2 million people signed a petition calling for Lynas to close its plant and thousands have taken to the streets to express their opposition to the rare earth refinery operating the country. The presence of the facility has sparked one of the biggest environmental movements in Malaysian history. According to one local campaigner in Kuantan, China’s loss of its rare earth monopoly will also prove a loss for the rest of the world, including Africa, as the floodgates open on a toxic trade.

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Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?

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How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?

As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.

Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.

Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.

What is climate change?

First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:

a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.

The causes of climate change can be any combination of:

  • Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
  • Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
  • Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).

What changes have been detected?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.

The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.

A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.

Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.

This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.

Weather attribution

Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.

The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.

One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.

As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.

Adapting to a changing climate

Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.

Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.

As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.

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The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation

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Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.


As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.    

The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).

The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.

The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.

To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.

Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.

Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.

“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.

But South African businesses were affected too.

Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.

Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.

“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.

 Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected. 

Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.

“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.

Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).

Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.

Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.

The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.

Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.” 

Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.

There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.

There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.

A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.   

Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”

“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.

She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.

Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.

“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.

She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.

“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).

“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.

Women stop traffic while they hold up placards stating their grievences against GBV. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.

The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.

Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?

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Current Affairs

Quality Higher Education Means More Than Learning How To Work

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When people talk about quality education, they’re often referring to the kind of education that gives students the knowledge and skills they need for the job market. But there’s a view that quality education has wider benefits: it develops individuals in ways that help develop society more broadly.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the higher education policy emphasises student employability and the alleviation of labour shortages. But, as my research found, this isn’t happening in practice.

University education needs to do more than produce a graduate who can get a job. It should also give graduates a sense of right and wrong. And it should instil graduates with an appreciation for other people’s development.

Tertiary education should also give students opportunities, choices and a voice when it comes to work safety, job satisfaction, security, growth and dignity. Higher education is a space where they can learn to be critical. It must prepare them for participating in the economy and broader society.

This isn’t happening in Zimbabwe. Graduate unemployment is high and employers and policy makers are blaming this largely on the mismatch between graduate skills and market requirements.

Investigating Zimbabwe’s universities
My research sought to examine how a human development lens could add to what was valued as higher education, and the kind of graduate outcomes produced in Zimbabwe. I investigated 10 of the universities in Zimbabwe (there were 15 at the time of the research). Four were private and six public.

I reviewed policy documents, interviewed representatives of institutions and held discussions with students. Members of Zimbabwe’s higher education quality assurance body and university teaching staff were also included.

I found that in practice, higher education in Zimbabwe was influenced by the country’s socio-political and economic climate. Decisions and appointments of key university administrators in public universities and the minister of higher education were largely political.

In addition, resources were limited and staff turnover was high. Universities just couldn’t finance themselves through tuition fees.

Different players in the higher education system – employers, the government, academics, students and their families – have different ideas about what “quality” means in higher education. The Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education understands quality as meeting set standards and benchmarks that emphasise the graduates’ knowledge and skills.

To some extent, academics and university administrators see quality as teaching and learning that gives students a mixture of skills and values such as social responsibility.

But lecturers must comply with the largely top-down approach to quality. They tend to do whatever will enhance students’ prospects of getting employment in a particular market.

The educators and students I interviewed acknowledged that developing the ability to work and to think critically were both central to higher education. But they admitted that these goals were hard to attain. This was because of the country’s constrained socio-political and economic environment. Academics and students felt that they couldn’t express themselves freely and critical thinking was suppressed.

Stuck on a road to nowhere
The study illustrates how an over-emphasis on creating human capital – skilled and knowledgeable graduates – limits higher education’s potential to foster broader human and social development.

University education should do more, especially in developing countries such as Zimbabwe that face not just economic, but also socio-political challenges. Before building more universities and enrolling more students, authorities and citizens should consider what quality education means in relation to the kind of society they want.

It’s possible to take a broader view of development, quality and the role of higher education. This broader approach – one that appreciates social justice – can equip graduates to address the country’s problems.

The road ahead
Universities can’t change a society on their own. But their teaching and learning practices can make an important difference.

Because quality teaching and learning means different things to different people, people need to talk about it democratically. Institutional and national policies must be informed by broad consultations to identify the knowledge, skills and values they want graduates to have.

University teaching and learning should emphasise freedom of expression and participation so that students can think and act critically beyond university.

Also, academics don’t automatically know how to teach just because they have a PhD. Universities should therefore ensure that academics learn how to teach and communicate their knowledge. Curriculum design, student assessment and feedback, as well as training of lecturers should all support this goal of human development.

When universities see quality in terms of human development, their role becomes more than production of workers in an economy. It gives them a mandate to nurture ethically responsible graduates. These more rounded graduates are better equipped to imagine an alternative future in pursuit of a better society, economically, politically and socially.

Patience Mukwambo: Researcher, University of the Free State

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