Imagine yourself at the bottom of a narrow pit, dug as deep into the earth as a five-storey building is tall. It is dark, and the mid-day heat of the African continent can still be felt far below the surface.
Suddenly you hear a rumble above, and a tuft of dust appears behind you. Before you have time to react, rubble and sand are pouring down on you.
If you are lucky, you claw your way up to the surface. If not, you are buried alive in a dark grave 100 feet below the earth.
The cries of your co-workers and the bulldozer’s rumble are the last sounds you hear.
Some say this describes what happened in the summer of 1996, when the Tanzanian government ordered peasant miners off the site of the largest gold find in East Africa after a Canadian-owned gold company took possession of the site.
Tens of thousands were evicted, and as many as 52 were allegedly buried alive—an allegation hotly disputed by the mine’s owners and the Canadian government.
It was a privilege and a frightening responsibility to be able to tell this story—without a doubt, one of the largest works of investigative journalism ever conducted by a student newspaper. But it is also sad.
On one hand, this six-month investigation testified to the importance of journalism—and the potential of people who are “only” student journalists. On the other, it is sad, because these allegations were made to most other major media, and none seem to have invested the time needed to tell this story in its full detail.
To this day, a student journalist is the only reporter from North America who has travelled to East Africa to investigate this case.
Perhaps this is because many of us cannot get beyond the barriers of geography, poverty, and, in some cases, the colour of a person’s skin, to see the humanity of Tanzanian peasants. This is, after all, a story of people and families, every bit as human as we are. When you look at their faces, pictured on the back page of our report, you cannot deny this.
This story needed to be told. It has dragged on for six years without an independent inquiry. It needs to be asked why tens of thousands of people—many of whom had been working the land since the late 1970s—were evicted by the Tanzanian government, in defiance of a court order, to make way for a Canadian gold company.
It needs to be determined, once and for all, what happened to as many as 52 of these people who were allegedly buried alive. The company that now owns the mine, and the Canadian government, say there were no burials and the story is a fabrication. But when our reporter travelled to Tanzania, he was able to find many who say they have not heard from their loved ones since the days of the shaft fillings.
According to basic human decency, not to mention United Nations standards, an independent inquiry needs to happen. It is now up to other media, the government, and—to at least some degree—the readers of this paper to see that occurs.
Barrick Gold, one of the most influential corporations at U of T, acquired the mine in 1999. They are not responsible for whatever happened there in 1996, but should they decide to do so, perhaps with lobbying from the university community, they could demand an independent inquiry take place. Through Barrick’s chairman’s donation to build the Munk Centre, and through Barrick’s board member Joseph Rotman’s donation to the school of management and his seat on our Governing Council, this corporation is part of the university community. As members of our community, students have a right to expect certain things from them.
Barrick has researched the case, and is convinced the burials did not happen. But others are convinced otherwise, and being a good corporate citizen would seem to demand agreeing with calls for a truly independent inquiry in order to put this matter to rest.
Moreover, this inquiry needs to occur because Canada is on the brink of leading a new charge to develop Africa at the Group of Eight meeting in June of this year. It seems hypocritical that their plan includes ensuring better land rights for African peasants so they can use their land as equity to start new businesses. Hypocritical because for the last decade, Canadian companies, among others, have gobbled up the juiciest land in Africa—including this Tanzanian gold mine, worth as much as $3 billion—and in the process benefited, while the Tanzania government evicted, largely without compensation, tens of thousands who had been on the land for years before.
If you enjoyed the service we provided you this year, the best way to say thank you would be to ensure that our journalists’ six-month struggle does not vanish down the memory hole.
If nothing else, we hope this story gives you pause to think about the sort of world you will be entering, and your role there.
You are the elite, and though you must not behave in an elitist way, you must also realize your privileged position, and work to ensure questions like the ones our story raises do not have to be asked again.