By Gavin du Venage and Joseph Kirschke

Last month, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leaders denounced South Africa’s mining companies for ignoring a day of mourning for Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Ironically, saddled with corruption, infighting and often voiceless workers, the NUM itself may be one of his struggle’s more unfortunate byproducts. 

Still, since Mandela’s Anti-Apartheid campaign ended in 1994, it’s clear that were it not for South Africa’s heavy concentration of gold, diamonds and other metals, 46 years of white minority rule would likely have been impossible. Something he understood extremely well. 

Indeed, a crucial element of Mandela’s decades-long fight was to free blacks from being indentured laborers in mines while ensuring they participated in the wealth the mines created. His greatest successes have included helping establish 1995’s Leon Commission, the country’s most comprehensive health and safety inquiry, and a mining-related Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The discovery of diamonds, then gold, in the late 1800s flooded white fortune seekers into the country. Unlike mineral rushes elsewhere, however, this one proved sustainable. But as the mines transitioned from tin-panners to deep-level operations, they ran desperately short of labor. It was this need for a cheap workforce that saw a systematic introduction of laws forcing black South Africans to abandon traditional pastoralism for toil in the mines. Institutionalization soon followed. First the Hut taxes and 1913 Land Act, with a stroke of a pen, surrendered more than 87% of the country’s land mass to whites. Under grand apartheid, laws would then forbid blacks from living in a “white” South Africa without a job—a mechanism geared toward keeping mines filled with warm bodies.

Over the century, more than 80,000 miners would go on to lose their lives, while millions more were dislocated to make way for mining projects. Profits from these taxed minerals, in turn, underpinned one of the 20th century history’s worst experiments in social engineering, while turning South Africa into the continent’s biggest economy.

Mandela’s ascent to the liberation movement’s leadership, meanwhile, coincided with the adoption of socialist-oriented principles. Nationalization of the mines, moreover, was a key rallying point. “…big monopolies are owned by one race only, and without such nationalization, racial domination would be perpetuated despite the spread of political power,” he said during his treason trial. Mandela also offered: “It would be a hollow gesture to repeal Gold Law prohibitions against Africans when all gold mines are owned by European companies.”

Since Mandela’s freedom followed communism’s collapse though, these leanings gave way to market-oriented economic realities. The spirit of redistribution, however, lived on; President Thabo Mbeki, in particular, steered away from his predecessor’s reconciliation tone by instating black empowerment laws that included racial quotas for mine ownership. Despite bitter criticism for fostering crony capitalism, this legislation fundamentally changed the faces of boardrooms and shareholders across the sector. Today’s black billionaires such as Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa, for instance, owe significant mine shares to it; further testimony is on display in Johannesburg’s plush northern suburbs clogged with luxury cars driven by “black diamonds,” an emerging middle class.

South African mining remains an unforgiving enterprise. Since most of it takes place underground—and desirable elements are machine-resistant—health and safety hazards are commonplace. Violence remains an ongoing problem, too, underscored by the August 2012 killings of 34 workers by security forces at a Marikana platinum mine, the worst state violence since apartheid’s end.

But the benefits Mandela brought to generations of South Africa’s miners are undeniable. In his day, apartheid founding philosopher Hendrik Vervoerd called the nation’s blacks “drawers of water and hewers of wood.” Mandela proved otherwise, turning them into shareholders, directors and beneficiaries of one of the planet’s most mineralized places.