I have recently come across an advert for gold jewellery in a glossy international publication. Like most of the world's precious stones and metals, no mention is made of its actual origins, of the role humans play in transforming a rather dull, lifeless substance into something precious and expensive.
Instead the advert emphasises the themes of purity and longevity, the fact that gold will be around long after the people who buy it are dead and buried. "Discover Gold", the advert encourages us. It is as if the ring, bracelet and necklace on display are waiting to be found, as if the glitter and exoticism of gold distance it from the mundane world of human endeavour.
What do most of us know about this metal? Very little, apart from its cost. Some who studied geography at school might be aware that it is mined in large quantities in South Africa. We might even recall the images of the deepest mine in the world located near Johannesburg, of long lines of men in protective clothing and tin helmets who use expensive, sophisticated equipment to bring it to the surface.
That is another myth that adds to the lure of gold. Buried beneath miles of rock, deep in the earth's core, human civilisation extends the best of its technology and ingenuity to deliver this elusive, expensive substance.
Gold has exerted a fascination on human societies for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It is nor my intention to challenge such a deep source of intrigue. Yet despite what the adverts might suggest, it does have a human history, a social dimension that is important to understand.
While the gold we buy has an aura of exoticism and associations of romance, the mechanism of its "discovery" in many countries is considerably less romantic and ennobling than what we might choose, or be encouraged, to believe.
Do the high purchase prices, for example, translate into significant benefits for the communities where much of the gold is located? Are safety regulations in place? Are children involved in its extraction? Is the environment adequately protected or rehabilitated after use?
This article is an attempt to answer some of these questions, drawing on a recent study conducted in northern Zimbabwe among a community for whom gold has much more to do with a life of drudgery and risk than the exotic lifestyle and resources associated with its consumers.
Alluvial gold has been mined for centuries by indigenous peoples of Zimbabwe, and formed an important part of the pre-colonial economic prosperity. Gold was traded first with Middle and Far Eastern entrepreneurs and later with the Portuguese. It was the lure of this gold that led to the colonisation of the country by Cecil Rhodes in 1890.
Until the 1950s, indigenous miners along the Mazoe River and its tributaries in northern Zimbabwe continued their mining operations. Gold was sold to colonial government agents and was often used to pay an unpopular annual poll tax.
In recent years, however, the number of people involved in informal gold mining has swelled considerably. Numbers are impossible to determine exactly, due to seasonal fluctuations and the fact that such mining is often illegal. But one study claimed that some 250,000 people derive a livelihood from this activity.
Informal mining is unregulated and smallscale, with individuals and families engaged in surface mining and panning of gold along streams and rivers. While officially "illegal", it is generally tolerated, both because it provides some resources to people who have no other source of income and because it has proved impossible for the authorities to effectively control it.
Poverty is the principal factor that has prompted thousands of people into a lifestyle that is hazardous and difficult. Many of the miners in Zimbabwe, for example, come from neighbouring Mozambique and fled the civil war in that country in the 1980s. …