Sonwabile Mnwana

Catalyst Fellow

Catalyst Fellow, July 2020


Sonwabile Mnwana is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa. He hold a PhD in social sciences. He is also a research associate at Society, Work and Politics Institute and at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He is the former president of the South African Sociological Association. His research focuses on meanings of land, mining and rural social change. He is project leader for several research projects. Mnwana held a Visiting Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) in 2019.


Project Title and Abstract: Land and Distributional Struggles in South Africa’s Rural Mining Frontier

This study is grounded in scholarly debates that highlight the politics of distribution in Africa. I analyse the role of large scale mining in shaping land and distributional struggles at a local level. The project builds on the research that I have conducted for more than a decade on the social impacts of mining on communal land in South Africa. I detail the intense local struggles over the mineral-rich land in the villages that the vast ‘platinum belt’ straddles in South Africa’s North West and Limpopo provinces. Ordinary villagers make radical demands – including direct cash payments – that are rooted on private group ‘ownership’ of land and mineral resources. Local chiefs, who have positioned themselves as custodians of customary land, act as mediators of mining investments on behalf of rural communities. Many rural residents have resisted this trend. Ordinary villagers also assert strong claims over mineral-rich land and mining benefits. These multiple ‘distributive claims’ have been at the root of prolonged social conflict in mining areas. Therefore, this study attempts to examine distributional claims from below, particularly what these claims reveal about distribution of mining revenues and existing gaps in state-driven mining policy mechanisms of redistribution. I argue that, in the context of mining-led local conflict, custom and law are not only contested notions (and ‘spaces’), but also instruments of power.