With the unprecedented surge in the global demand for lithium, African countries find themselves at crossroads. On the one hand, they want to unlock the potential for value-beneficiation of their minerals so that their citizens benefit; and on the other, they want to appease financialized foreign private capital by allowing foreign investors to mine the lithium in their countries, process it, and export it.
Zimbabwe finds itself with such a dilemma, but one thing that comes to the fore is how global capitalism through its “neocolonial mask” is robbing Zimbabwe of what is due to its citizens.
Zimbabwe and its vast deposits of lithium ore
Zimbabwe is one of the countries in the world with the largest deposits of lithium, as well as the largest lithium mines. The mineral’s global demand has astronomically soared and the country hopes to bank on this by feeding this gigantic global demand. The sudden discovery of such incredible amounts of lithium deposits posits a blessing and a curse to the southern African country, grappling with a myriad socio-economic problems.
As the global demand for lithium has shot up, global market prices for the commodity have also gone up. In terms of lithium reserves, Zimbabwe takes first place in Africa and is ranked fifth globally. Other countries in Africa with considerable lithium deposits include Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Namibia. Despite such a global standing, poverty and inequality reigns supreme in Zimbabwe, as all mining rights are going to the Chinese, thus prejudicing local artisanal miners/local communities.
The ever-rising global demand for lithium and Zimbabwe’s global placement
The transition towards green energy is predicated on the extraction and exploitation of lithium, deemed a critical component in ditching fossil fuel energy. Half of all cars could be electric by 2030, a projection by the Anglo-Australian mining behemoth Rio Tinto Group. Electric cars are powered by lithium batteries.
As it stands, China controls the lithium global supply chain. Companies in China have been hands-on-deck to ensure the supply of lithium meets this ever-surging global demand for lithium. The lithium-ion powered battery portends a massive technological revolution as concerns energy consumption, and all eyes are on Africa—Zimbabwe in this context—because of the large lithium deposits found on the continent.
The following statistics underpin the scale of the global demand for lithium and how this will increase over the next few years: the world extracted 540,000 metric tonnes of lithium in 2015, and this figure is projected to stand at 1,5 million metric tonnes by 2025. By 2030, the world is expected to have extracted at least 3 million metric tonnes of lithium ore.
It is against this backdrop that Zimbabwe strives to meet 20 percent of the world’s demand for lithium when it fully exploits its known lithium deposits.
Zimbabwe realizes the importance of value addition as it outlaws raw lithium exportation
Lithium-producing countries have been trying to figure out the best ways to realize the maximum value out of the vast lithium riches they have. At the close of last year, Zimbabwe made a legislative intervention in the form of a law that banned the exportation of raw unprocessed lithium ore.
Statutory Instrument 213 of 2022—Base Minerals Export Control (Lithium Bearing Ores and Unbeneficiated Lithium) Order, 2022—the law banning Zimbabwe’s raw lithium exports, reads:
3.(1) No lithium bearing ores, or unbeneficiated lithium whatsoever, shall be exported from Zimbabwe to another country except under written permit of the Minister under subsection (2)
(2) On written application by any party— (a) wishing to export samples of lithium bearing ore or unbeneficiated lithium for assaying outside Zimbabwe; or (b) to a miner or exporter of lithium upon production of written proof satisfactory to the Minister that there are exceptional circumstances justifying the exportation in question and that the lithium bearing ores or unbeneficiated lithium in question have been valued in terms of section 12D(3) of the Value Added Tax Act [Chapter 23:12] for purposes of payment of the export tax on unbeneficiated lithium…
Notwithstanding this legal imperative outlawing the exportation of unprocessed lithium ore (with immediate effect upon its promulgation), a special permit was granted to the Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) so that it can export raw lithium primarily to the Chinese market since Western-imposed [illegal] sanctions forbid the sale of mineral resources to the United States or Europe. This was seen as a move to resuscitate the struggling ZDI but critics argued it was a controversial move meant to benefit the ruling political and economic elite of Zimbabwe.
The ban on lithium was effected in the context of socio-economic growth and development, in which Zimbabwe’s government seeks to “ensure that the vision of the President to see the country becoming an upper-middle income economy has been realized”.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country’s president, has been preaching a neoliberal message of “re-engagement” and “investment” — hoping that attracting [local and foreign] private capital to invest through a “business-friendly” climate will have a trickle-down effect resulting in job opportunities and value addition for the country’s citizens.
This is however a vainglorious agenda because mining companies, whether local or private, simply take all the profits for their private gain while the local communities suffer.
Chinese investors win Zimbabwe’s favour over the West as local miners lose out
Chinese investors have a foothold — a monopoly, in actuality — over Zimbabwe’s lithium resources. This has largely been to the detriment of local artisanal miners who have found their mining activities effectively outlawed as Chinese miners extract the most out of Zimbabwe’s large lithium ore deposits. Chinese mining companies have been granted several mining concessions by Zimbabwe’s government over the past years in line with the latter’s Look East Policy(necessitated by Western-imposed sanctions).
The Chinese-owned Bikita Minerals, located in Masvingo Province, is the largest lithium mine in Zimbabwe and it boasts 10.8 million tonnes of lithium ore.
As Zimbabwe attempts to gain new favour with the West, the Look East Policyhas been increasingly and relentlessly gaining more validation — which puts Chinese companies at an advantage over the West with respect to mining lithium. China is the biggest producer of the world’s electric vehicle capacity, accounting for 70 percent. As such, it has been ruthless in its pursuit of lithium resources in Zimbabwe.
The United States, despite fervent diplomatic overtures including the US-Africa Summit 2022, is now compelled to look for lithium resources elsewhere, given China’s stranglehold over Africa’s political economy — the Asian giant eclipsed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009.
In all this, the government has maintained a negative attitude towards local artisanal miners, asserting in 2020 that their illegal mining activities resulted in the country losing more than $100 million a month in revenues (mostly through the smuggling of gold). It is in this context that the government has never sought to formalize artisanal mining of lithium and other metals, and instead, giving favour to Chinese mining investors.
Neocolonialism and the rotten nature of global capitalism
There has been wide criticism of the secretive nature of Zimbabwe’s mining contracts with Chinese companies. Some of the Chinese companies which have acquired lithium mines and projects worth a combined $678 million since 2022 include Sinomine Resource Group, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, and Chengxin Lithium Group.
The two latter companies are exempted from the raw lithium exportation ban because they are developing processing plants. So this is in actuality anadvantage to them. No one exactly knows the nature of the contracts that these companies entered into with the government.
It is clear that neocolonial control of Africa’s resources continues unabated. African governments keep giving away innumerable concessions to foreign companies which take all the profits back to the mother country while there is no skills-transfer and economic emancipation of the African citizenry.
Although direct brutal colonial control of Africa’s resource is widely deemed a relic of the past, the soft power exercised both by the East and the West is detrimental to Africa — in various economic sectors of African countries, it is either China or the West which have total and strict control of each country’s destiny on the continent. Zimbabwe might as well meet the global demand for lithium through the mining activities of Chinese companies — but at what cost for the local people?
It is incontrovertible that the ruling establishment through its indigenous bourgeois elite/national middle class has betrayed the interests of the masses.
Frantz Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth: “Seen through its [the national ruling class] eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the mask of neo-colonialism.”
“The colony's economy is not integrated into that of the nation as a whole. It is still organized in order to complete the economy of the different mother countries. Colonialism hardly ever exploits the whole of a country. It contents itself with bringing to light the natural resources, which it extracts, and exports to meet the needs of the mother country's industries, thereby allowing certain sectors of the colony to become relatively rich. But the rest of the colony follows its path of underdevelopment and poverty, or at all events sinks into it more deeply.”
Africa’s leaders should realize who they ought to serve. They should be the servants of the immense masses of the poor majority, and not pander to the whims and dictates of foreign private capital simply because they have confined themselves to being comfortable with eating the crumbs — while the rest of the profits go back to the mother country. Chinese co-operation in the development of the continent must be closely monitored so as to avoid the further exploitation of Africa and the disempowerment of its peoples.