Mining for titanium on the Wild Coast? Follow the supply chain

Xolobeni is a small coastal community at war with a mining company. Since 2007, the Amadiba Crisis Committee has been opposing Australian mining company MRC’s application to extract nine million tons of ilmenite from the red coastal sands of the Wild Coast, remote and well south of Durban. While the local community has recently seen off an environmental impact assessment team and their armed guards, the precedents for these kinds of conflict don’t look good for the Crisis Committee.

Xolobeni is a re-run of earlier conflicts. Back in the late 1970s, for example, there was outrage at a similar application to dredge minerals from the coastal sands of northern KwaZulu. The company won and memory of the objections has faded away. In Xolobeni, the local chief has swapped the confidence of his people for a Toyota 4×4 from the mining company. With time, the thin resources of the local community are likely to be weathered away.With some irony, the film Blood Diamonds was made in this part of the Wild Coast a year before MRC lodged its first application to mine the dunes. Set in an alluvial diamond mine in Sierra Leone, this was a revelation of the financing of conflicts in war zones to the mutual benefit of local warlords and multinational mining companies. Ilmenite and its uses shares none of the romance of diamonds and Xolobeni does not have a Leonardo DiCaprio. This is one of innumerable local conflicts; of desperate importance for those who are there; of little interest to the world at large.

If the Xolobeni mining concession is granted, it will displace 200 households. MRC justifies this in the name of economic development and the creation of 600 jobs.

Zamile Qunya, an entrepreneur who grew up in Xolobeni, defends the project: “all you have in the area is naked children asking for sweets, no water, no electricity, no clinics. It’s not a life that is being lived by people in a democratic society.” The Amadiba Crisis Committee’s Nonhle Mbuthuma, also interviewed by Kwanele Sosibo for the Mail and Guardian, counters this:

We don’t want the mine because, first, an open-cast mine is very dusty and we’ll be affected by TB, asthma and other lung diseases. We’ve been to Richards Bay where this type of mining is happening and observed the problems in that area. Second, we also have our fields there, which are our livelihood. Third, there are graves, as we have homes in the area. The assessors say they only see three graves but in one of the homesteads there are more than 20 graves. Fourth, we have livestock and they want to mine on our grazing fields. That mine is short term, projected for 25 years. After that we can’t return to our land or lives.

The community is sceptical about the promise of jobs, noting that this form of mining is highly mechanized.

By convention, conflicts such as this are ring-fenced, with specific parties identified and defined, in preparation for the formalities of statutory processes, litigation and then, if necessary, enforcement. But, by the time such processes are played through, irreparable damage has been done. All too often, the certainties of the present are repudiated by the future; who now makes asbestos, or mines for lead?

The other way is to use forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution that are founded in the recognition that there is no gain in litigation and that a negotiated outcome is preferable.

Qunya, who founded Xolani Empowerment Company as a junior business partner to the Perth-based MRC, believes that the cause of the conflict is the “confusion from people from outside our community who have their own interests at heart”. Given this, neither he nor MRC currently believe that there is anything to negotiate. As Mark Caruso, the Perth-based chairman of MRC puts it, “it is up to the government to determine whether or not mining takes place”.

One way to break this impasse, and to open the way for an alternative dialogue, is to challenge such definitions of relevant interests. Is this only a matter for the local community and for companies seeking local mining rights for a remote strip of Indian ocean coastland? Or is this an issue of more general concern?

The conflict can be redefined – changing the terms of its potential solution – by following the supply chain.

Once extracted from the Xolobeni dunes, the ilemite will be reduced with sulfuric acid to create pure titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide is one of the whitest minerals known and has very high refraction properties. The titanium dioxide from the Xolobeni plant will be used across the world for cosmetics and sun block creams, for paints, plastics and protective coatings, as a food additive for dried vegetables, nuts and mustard, and for the artificial enhancement of diary products and sweets to make them appear whiter than they are.

Titanium dioxide is used in very small quantities, but also frequently. After they have inhaled the dust over long periods, laboratory rats have developed respiratory tract cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer now sees titanium dioxide as a potential carcinogen for human populations. Given this, the Amadiba Crisis Committee’s concern for the future health of their own community looks like a far wider worry.

Seeing supply chains as ways of mapping ethical investment and development knocks away the argument that conflicts such as Xolobeni are purely local affairs. The work of an Amsterdam-based social enterprise, Fairphone, shows how this can be developed further, into forms of practical action and intervention.

As its name suggests, Fairphone manufactures smart phones that are, to the extent possible, ethically manufactured. They do this by tracing back the supply chain for the minerals that make a cell phone work: antalum, tungsten, copper, iron, nickel, aluminum, tin, silver, chromium, gold and palladium.

All these minerals and metals originally enter the supply chain from the mining sector – a challenging industry in terms of sustainability. From pollution and extremely dangerous working conditions to child labor, a number of mining-related practices desperately require improvement.

Rather than trying to avoid part of the world where the mining of these essential minerals is tangled up in conflicts, Fairphone deliberately goes there, with the aim of using its purchasing power to counter the corrosion of violence and corruption

For example, tin.

Tin is extracted from cassiterite, mined extensively in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is used in the soldering paste for your cell phone’s circuit boards. Tin mining has been implicated in corruption and war-mongering in the eastern DRC, causing tin to be listed as a “conflict mineral” by, for example, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office it its guidance to companies working and trading in Africa.

Companies can avoid the problem by sourcing tin from other parts of the world. Fairphone’s position, though, is that withdrawing from the DRC will remove legitimate sources of local employment and revenue, making the area still more vulnerable to violent conflict.

To create the Fairphone, we have made a conscious decision to support mines in conflict areas, specifically within the DRC. By focusing on a single region, we want to formalize the mining sector, increase employment for small-scale miners and contribute to economic development and regional stability.

Fairphone is a member of the Conflict Free Tin Initiative that was founded in 2012. This provides for a defined supply chain through which minerals can be traced from their origin in the ore through to the final manufactured product.

Back to Xolobeni. Every time a holidaymaker uses sun block cream on a beach in Anse Lazio, Clifton or Honokalani, they are reconnecting a supply chain that weaves back through retail outlets, distributors, factories and mineral processing plants to mineral sands and the effects of mining on local communities. They also have the right to know the health risks, however tenuous these may be at today’s level of medical research. Contrary to Zamile Qunya’s assertion that this is a local issue, from which outsiders should keep away, mining for ilmenite on South Africa’s Wild Coast has as wide implications up through the supply chain as mining for tin in the eastern DRC.


John Clarke, “West Coast mining conflict: Xolobeni escalates”. Daily Maverick, 4 May 2015.


Dineo Kaku, “Call for calm over proposed mine”. Cape Times Business Report, June 19 2015.

Kwanele Sosibo, “Villagers call for chief’s head over plan to mine their land”. Mail and Guardian, 7 May 2015.

UK Government, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “Guidance, conflict minerals”.

Syria’s students: “the war follows them”

A few weeks ago, a runaway fire destroyed at least 160 tents in a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekkaa Valley, some 30 kilometres east of Beirut. The fire could have been caused by an electrical fault or by an accident while cooking. Because of the density of the camp, with some 300 tents housing 600 refugees in all, the fire spread rapidly. Three children and at least one adult were killed, bodies burned beyond recognition.

In the broad sweep of daily events, this is barely a pin-prick, a small tragedy in a conflict that has displaced more than half of Syria’s pre-war population. But hell is a local experience, erupting repeatedly in the Bekkaa Valley and in the other refugee camps scattered across Lebanon. These small intense tragedies earn the slightest of mentions in the media. But when they are aggregated the composite is a conflagration comparable to the worst of modern wars.

The invisibility, to those not there, of these four deaths in Lebanon’s winelands is a consequence of familiarity. These small, local hells are now so frequent that they are not reported. News of fires, violence, death and despair in the Middle East’s refugee camps is now so frequent that it’s ceased to be news.

John Berger put his finger on this contradiction in his 1972 essay, recently republished, “Photographs of Agony”. The constant flow of graphic war photographs from Vietnam were intended to show “moments of agony in order to extort the maximum concern”. But the reader, confronted with the war photograph across the front page, sees “such moments, whether photographed or not” as “discontinuous with all other moments. They exist by themselves”. As a consequence, “the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticized. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody”.

One way of avoiding this conundrum of invisibility and generalization is to stay with the particularity of local experience, with the specificity of issues and concerns. This is what a large number of civil society organizations are doing, with regard to children, or women’s rights, or health or food security. This kind of work offers the opportunity of amelioration where national level politics and international strategies repeatedly fail. To reverse Berger’s insight, this kind of intervention is to re-politicize the war, to connect moments of catastrophic violence with the specifics of the human condition and to identify courses of action that will be effective.

Camps such as he unnamed cluster of tents that burned in the Bekkaa Valley on 1 June are particularly vulnerable because the Lebanese government has no coherent strategy for responding to the massive and continuing influx across its long border with Syria. Formal camps are prohibited and so groups of refugees are making do where they can, in almost 2000 similar camps. Arrivals are a new layer of despair, adding to earlier refugees from Iraq and Syria and about 450 000 long-term Palestinian refugees who have few rights and live in conditions that have been condemned repeatedly by aid agencies.

Before the current war in Syria erupted in 2012, Lebanon had a population of about 4 million. Since then, a further one million Syrians have crossed into Lebanon; now, about a quarter of Lebanon’s population are refugees. This is as if Britain was home to 16 million refugees, living in thousands of tented camps, wherever they could find a corner of land.

Here the spotlight – one of many points for re-politicization and re-connection – is on education, and with current or potential university students who are caught up in the violence. Until last year, this had been another area of invisibility. Now, we have the benefit of a significant study carried out for the Institute for International Education and the University of California Davis Human Rights Initiative. “The War Follows Them”, published last year, is an in-depth look at Syrian university students and scholars currently in Lebanon. It concludes with a set of specific recommendations that can serve as a map for universities, elsewhere, in engaging with this humanitarian crisis, given that they have the expertise and the ability to act, and the opportunity of finding innovative ways to resource effective solutions.

Neither the Lebanese government nor the United Nations has a statistical sub-category for refugees who are university-aged students. The Institute for International Education estimates that there are up to 70 000 displaced Syrians currently in Lebanon in this category. Many will come to be in what the UN calls “protracted refugee situations”, or PRS. PRS applies when a person has been exiled for five years or more and where there is little sign of the conflict in the home country abating. Across the world, the average PRS has been steadily rising; it is now close to twenty years.

There is an evident loss of opportunity for the individual. As elsewhere, student refugees in Lebanon face a cluster of impossible barriers that include no money for fees, the need to work long hours in underpaid and marginal work to survive, prohibitive regulations, discrimination and the fear of political violence and high levels of personal stress and distress. It will be quite impossible for Lebanon’s universities to absorb this many refugee students and other frontline states are in a similar position.

As with other experiences of life in a refugee camp, hell is an intensely personal affair. The strength of the IIE’s research is the way in which it builds its case from individual stories. Here is Mahmoud (not his real name). Mahmoud is a Palestinian refugee student who had been studying at Aleppo University in Syria until he and his family had been forced to cross the border into Lebanon. In May last year, the Lebanese government imposed new restrictions on Palestinians whose initial country of refuge had been Syria. Mahmoud cannot now either renew his permit in Lebanon or return to Syria. He now has no way of completing his degree – and no prospect of a legal existence.

Taken together, these thousands of individual situations have an aggregate effect that could prevent the rehabilitation of Syria as a country for more than a lifetime. Syria’s economic losses due to the current war have been estimated at more than $144 billion: the collapse of Syria’s economy and health and education sectors mean that it is now considered a “low human development state”. As the IIE report puts it: “the failure to connect young Syrians in the refugee population with higher educational and training opportunities now will only worsen that decline. It will also prevent them from entering fields of study that are critical to helping Syria recover in the future”.

Ideally, displaced Syrian students should be able to continue their education outside of their home country and then return post-conflict to help rebuild Syrian infrastructure and society. But if this opportunity is deferred for the many years of an extended PRS, bridging the chasm that currently separates students from opportunity is important. As the IIE’s team notes, providing these students with higher education will enable them to be productive members of their community within their county of refuge, and mitigate the risk they will turn to extremism or crime.

The Institute for International Education’s key recommendations are that the wider world of higher education must re-connect with these local and regional problems: “a range of higher education programs and solutions should be developed that can account for the diverse contexts within which displaced Syrians are living. In practice, United Nations bodies, governments, donor agencies, NGOs, and universities should work with the front-line hosting states to develop a holistic and coordinated response that offers targeted solutions to meet students’ diverse needs”.

To reconnect in this way is to map a path from general policy, to specific engagement, and to ameliorating the terrible circumstances of individual students. It is to learn from Berger’s insight when he was thinking about the Vietnam war a lifetime ago, to avoid the invisibility that sweeps in like a sea fog when personal hells are so common that they are no longer news.


New York Times, 1 June 2015. “At Least Four People Killed in Fire at Syrian Refugee Camp in Lebanon.

John Berger 2013. “Understanding a Photograph. Edited and Introduced by Geoff Dyer. London, Penguin

Institute for International Education 2014. “The War Follows Them. Syrian University Students and Scholars in Lebanon”. Available at

Universities and Emergencies: scaling up responses

Universities are increasingly caught up in violent conflicts. This was the focus of a symposium at last week’s Going Global conference in London. The panel that presented on “Higher Education in Emergency Environments” covered specific crises in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, but with far wider implications. Appropriately so: last year the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack reported that between 2009 and 2012 armed non-state groups, state military and security forces, as well as armed criminal groups, have attacked thousands of schoolchildren, university students, teachers, academics and education establishments in at least 70 countries. Such attacks are escalating. Helena Barroco, Coordinator for the Global Platform for Syrian Students, described current levels of violence and displacement as the worst humanitarian crisis in more than half a century.

Extensive and growing numbers of students and academics are in exile. Precise numbers are unknown, but the extent of the current crisis in Syria alone provides an indication. When the war began in 2011, Syria had a population of about 23 million with 26% of Syrian men and women continuing into post-compulsory education. By the end of 2014 an estimated 3.8 million had fled the country and a further 7.6 million people were internally displaced as a direct result of violence. Of those remaining in Syria more than 12 million were in need of humanitarian assistance. Tens of thousands of academics, students and potential students are caught up in this maelstrom.

The Going Global symposium showed that well-established responses to such crises can no longer match the scale of need. Professor Osman Babury, Deputy Minister for Academic Affairs for Afghanistan, argued for international protocols and a global fund to assist universities caught up in such violence. But the problem – as the panel emphasized – is that such calls for support are in competition for other essential humanitarian aid; medicine and health provision, food security, housing, basic education. It is unlikely that the needs of universities would win out in such a prioritization; it is also unlikely that universities across the world would donate at sufficient levels.

Given the scale of this problem, there is a clear need for a bridge that provides continuity in learning opportunities in situations where universities are prevented from functioning by major emergencies. This bridge may be required in-country, in situations like that faced by universities in Gaza after the 2014 Israeli strikes. It may also be required by students in exile, such as those in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, or who have taken refuge in Turkey. For some, such a bridge will help them secure places, and funding, at universities out of their home countries. For others, continuity in learning will help in finding employment. For those universities temporarily prevented from operating because of damage to their infrastructure, providing continuity in learning for their students will assist them in regaining full functionality.

The opportunity for addressing this objective will be grounded in the remarkable advances that have been made in digital technologies over the past few years. The convergence of widely available bandwidth, huge digital storage capacity at plummeting unit costs and affordable, intelligent mobile devices is enabling disruptive innovations in most areas of contemporary life, including education.

In themselves, though, digital solutions will not be adequate. While there are evident exceptions, the pattern that has emerged from MOOCs is that few complete and many – often most – participants are already graduate professionals, with strong resource and support structures. Those caught up in violent emergencies will not have such advantages and will want and need strong and immediate peer support to get what they need.

In addition, many will have experienced the intense and personalized effects of warfare. Professor Babury puts the level of mental health problems among students in Afghanistan at above 40%. Far higher numbers experience violent trauma. For example, the Bourj el-Barajneh camp near Beirut now houses some 30 000 refugees in an area of about 1.5 square kilometres. The United Nations estimates that 90% have experienced violent trauma.

Last week’s discussion in London was part of a continuing debate about what to do about such emergencies. Next year’s Going Global will be in Cape Town. By then, we need to have rethought first principles, reconciling the long and honourable assistance that universities have given to students and scholars at risk with the scale and ferocity of today’s crises.


British Council Going Global 2015. “Higher Education in Emergency Environments”.

Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack, 2014. Education Under Attack.

OCHA 2013. “Lebanon: Life for Palestinian refugees in Bourj el-Barajneh”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1 July 2013:

Connected Learning

Connected Learning for New Futures: Going Global: Connecting Cultures, Forging Futures, British Council, London 2 June 2015. Read the full presentation here.

How can effective digital learning communities be set up to bring together people from widely separate locations and divergent political and cultural backgrounds? How can we ensure that such common and synchronous spaces are effectively and appropriately mediated, using the combination of the virtual and natural worlds? How can we design learning processes that contribute to the broader objectives of education as a combination of personal benefit and public good?

These are the focus of today’s symposium at the British Council’s annual Going Global conference, this year in London. My pitch is for “Connected Learning”, a set of principles and practices best articulated by the Connected Learning Alliance ( I’ve also been inspired by Margaret Archer’s critical realism, which enables our considerations of new digital technologies to be extended to the inner dialogues that, for all of us, relate our senses of ourselves to the worlds that we encounter.

The Connected Learning approach advocates for a world in which all learners have access to participatory, interest-driven learning that connects to educational, civic and career opportunities. The significant opportunities offered by new digital technologies follow from these imperatives rather than being seen as determinants. Archer’s critical realism complements Connected Learning in its focus on the subject’s reflexivity; the “inner voices” that we all have and with which we shape our relationship with the objective world and our sense, or absence, of projects that may, or may not, bring about our “ultimate concerns”.

Together, these approaches suggest a concept of Connected Learning that has three dimensions.

The first dimension (which I call C1) is the awareness of the sense of self that is shaped by reflexivity. The second dimension (C2) is the web of relationships that bind people to one another. The third dimension (C3) is the public good that is created within the university.

Each of these dimensions is already enabled, or potentially strengthened, by the rapid application of new, and often disruptive, digital technologies. In particular, the convergence of ubiquitous bandwidth, cheap and distributed data storage and increasingly affordable, location-intelligent mobile devices is creating new opportunities that can break down entrenched barriers.

The first dimension of connected learning – C1, the inner conversations of reflexivity – is based on the recognition that we all, from early in life, have an internal conversation as a normal mental activity. These internal conversations interpret and mediate the interrelationship between the self and social context and form the basis on which we determine our future courses of action, or inaction.

Given the emphasis in the Connected Learning approach on social justice and marginalized individuals and communities, there is a significant interest in what Archer calls “fractured reflexivity”. Just as the inner conversations and ultimate concerns of those benefitting from the stability and continuity of their circumstances can, and do, mediate the structural properties of the societies in which they live, so can fractured reflexivity be superseded by the successful inner articulation of projects that are meaningful in the inner awareness of self.

This relationship between the inner sense of purpose by the subject and the objective outcomes of their projects provides a key link in the development of social relationships with others (C2). Communication with the subject’s “similars and familiars” validates internal, private, dialogue while building various forms of relationships with other individuals.

Building connections with others is of course at the heart of the educational enterprise. There has been consistent focus on how to build meaningful webs of relationships between learners such that they interact with one another to build a shared understanding and improved competences. But what has not been so common has been consideration of the differences between tacit and codified forms of knowledge and the ways that these differences can be deployed against differing educational requirements. The relative balance of tacit and codified knowledge may be particularly useful in using new digital technologies to best advantage, particularly in difficult circumstances where conventional approaches to learning cease to be effective.

Most considerations of the work of universities privilege the transmission of codified forms of knowledge. This is information and interpretation that is presented and communicated in standardized formats that can be reproduced and distributed many times over: books, scientific journals, mathematical formulae, code. Digital technologies have massively amplified the volume and possibilities of codified knowledge, allowing infinite reproduction, almost instantaneous transmission irrespective of distance and ever-increasing accumulation.

But in practice a significant amount of university-level learning depends on less formal practices. Whether in medicine and the health professions, science and engineering or in the laboratories of the natural sciences, the transmission of knowledge is from watching, demonstrating, copying and practicing. Such transmission is often non-verbal, using sight, sound, touch and smell. This is tacit knowledge.

Digital technologies used in the virtual world attenuate this distinction between codified and tacit knowledge. This is because the virtual world has overcome what can be called the “tyranny of space”. It is now reasonable to expect that a group of learners, distributed between New York, Cape Town, Beijing and Sydney, can come together in real time via a video link. It is also a reasonable possibility that students can come together in a virtual classroom that transcends war zones or no-go areas that are too difficult to cross. But despite the considerable advances made in haptic technologies and virtual reality, these forms of communication still tend to be “cold”; formal, structured and heavily codified. This is why there is often a compelling need to augment virtual networks with the meetings in the natural world, placing a premium on the “hot” qualities of tacit interaction.

Understanding the fuller implications of the ways in which new digital technologies have overcome such traditional spatial constructs, coupled with an understanding of the significance of tacit forms of understanding as the doppelganger of codified knowledge, provides significant opportunities for designing and implementing educational models in this second domain of Connected Learning.

In conventional learning and teaching practices, tacit and codified knowledge transmission is intertwined, usually without an explicit awareness of the distinction. But in blended learning course designs the distinction is invariably more distinct because the on-line component of the course will lack the same facilities for tacit communication than face-to-face learning irrespective, at present, of the technical sophistication of the underlying communication technologies.

The third dimension of Connected Learning – C3 – is the accumulation of the outcomes of education as a public good. Here, Connected Learning is clearly aligned with the mission of the public university, contributing by expanding participation and the nature and quality of knowledge and of new ways of understanding.

In turn, this emphasis on the significance of public goods is aligned with advocacy for public policy reform. The Connected Learning Alliance originated in advocacy for reforms in schooling that would counter the continuing exclusion of economically and socially marginalized communities. The extension of this approach into post-compulsory education needs to make a direct and informed connection between the application of new digital technologies and continuing and expanding forms of unfair discrimination in access to, and success in gaining, university level qualifications.

The ways in which the individual subject can use new and emerging digital technologies to explore and connect their sense of self with the external opportunities of both networks of other learners and the immense and expanding resources of the public digital domain are a key aspect of the model for Connected Learning set out here. When conceptualized as three, interlocked, domains, Connected Learning can contribute to designs that convene learners from widely separate locations and divergent cultural and political backgrounds in ways that combine the particular and complementary attributes of the virtual and natural worlds.


An expanded version of these ideas, applied to situations where universities are confronting apparently intractable conflicts, will be published in a collection titled Higher Education and Democratic Innovation and edited by Sjur Bergan, Tony Gallagher and Ira Harkavy (Council of Europe Higher Education Series, in partnership with the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy and Queen’s University).