Sarah Robyn Farrell
“13 ways of looking at gold”
13 ways of looking at gold
It was the morning of the first Global Climate Strike of 2022. I prepared for my speech and my phone buzzed with messages from our Whatsapp group. In just a few hours I’d be joining my fellow organiser on stage, in front of Cape Town parliament, gathering with hundreds of people to call for social, environmental, and climate justice.
I looked down at my hand and became aware of the gold ring on my finger. Twisting it, the metal rubbed against my skin. I felt uncomfortable. Here I was, about to speak about how colonial and capitalist extractive industries and practices have not only led to inequality but are also the driving factor of climate and ecological crisis. Yet, my hand was branded by this history in the form of a gold ring.
Did this make me a hypocrite? Should I take it off? Should I not have had it in the first place? Or is this a product of the society into which I, as a white middle-class South African, was born – the society I am trying to help change?
This got me thinking about gold and the different ways of viewing it. So I set out to discover more. I can honestly say I was not prepared for the shift that this would have on my own perspective of the world, nor the depth with which I would need to confront my own position within history. As it turns out the narrative of this precious metal is far more complex than I could have imagined. Rather than a single story, it is an accumulation of perspectives that vary depending on where you stand in time, culture, history, and privilege.
Gold as a mysterious obsession
In my pursuit to discover more about gold, one thing was clear: for time immemorial, it has been a central obsession of humans spanning across cultures and civilisations. Nothing is more telling of this than the fact that gold has been mined and used independently by people all over the world. The Incan people referred to it as “tears of the sun” and the Ancient Egyptians as “flesh of the Gods.” Gold is featured in religious texts, including the Bible and Quran. It has pervaded our language in the form of metaphors and similes. It has accompanied protagonists in many myths, legends, and pieces of literature, and it has been the subject of many artists. It appears though that our obsession with gold has not only followed us through the ages but has moulded our histories, economies, and lives too.
Gold as extraterrestrial
Writing this essay did make me wonder, of all the metals and rocks in this world, why gold? What makes it so alluring? Perhaps its otherworldly nature has something to do with it. Made from dead star debris, gold came to our planet from outer space when asteroids bombarded Earth billions of years ago. I find it somewhat poetic then that in 1977, a 23-inch gold plated record was sent back into space on the Voyager spacecraft, “containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth”. The record was intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life that may come across it. The continued insatiable desire for gold has also led to the belief by some that we should mine asteroids in space for their gold. A new kind of space race, it seems, is emerging. To see who can grab hold of the extraterrestrial gold available in this ‘space-based economy’.
Gold as economy
The understanding that gold had been central to our dominant world economy in the last 300 years was new to me. I understood gold was used in trade, but I had no idea of its power in shaping the economies of the UK, the US, and as a result, the world. The on and off use of the ‘gold standard’ developed by Isaac Newton in the 1700s fixed the price of gold and linked all currencies to its price. It eventually empowered the US to act as the world banker with the dollar as a universal currency. The gold standard on numerous occasions put metal and profit ahead of people, leaving working class people in dire circumstances. It wasn’t until US president Nixon finally abolished the gold standard in 1971 that gold became a commodity, like crude oil, in which the price fluctuates.
Gold as a symbol of status & imperialism
It is true that the idea of gold as a symbol of power comes from ancient times but in today’s world gold continues to be a symbol of monarchy and imperial legacy. It is used for crowns and other regalia worn by European monarchs. It encases thousands of crowned jewels that were forcefully extracted through colonial conquest. The combination of ancient and current uses permeates society. This is especially seen amongst celebrities who have been deemed by the media to be the royalty of popular culture. Be it gold chains popularised by hip hop superstars like Run DMC and Dr Dre, or glamorous looks on the red carpet where luxury jewellers use celebrities to showcase their products. This trickles down and gold becomes a coveted item for the average person to showcase that they have ‘made it.’
Gold as a representation of extractivism & colonialism
I grew up in Johannesburg, also termed eGoli in isiZulu or ‘city of gold’. Every morning on my way to primary school, we would drive past the beige and orange sandy banks of the now-abandoned mine dumps where gold was extracted, and then shipped out of South Africa, to be stored in the bank reserves and traded by countries of the Global North. For a period of this time, my father worked for Anglo Gold, a global mining company owned by Anglo American – a multinational at the forefront of extractive practices.
It is true then that the economic privileges I have been afforded have not only resulted from Apartheid but from the gold industry itself. An industry that by 1910, contracted half a million young black boys and men as young as 15 to work in gold mines in extremely dangerous conditions. Black mineworkers were afforded no human rights and lived in segregated compounds. This led to the formation of the South Western cluster of Townships (Soweto) where to this day, many Black people continue to face untenable living circumstances and poverty. According to Dr Ian Mckay at the University of Witwatersrand, by 2002, 35% of the gold ever produced in the world had come from Johannesburg. However, the black mineworkers who risked their lives to mine that gold, never saw any of the wealth that came from that.
The effects of gold colonialism could not be more evident than in a place like South Africa. But it is not only here where gold has been at the heart colonial pursuits. From South America to the Pacific Coast of North America, to Australia, gold has been at the forefront of colonial expansion.
Gold as a safety net
Safety and security have been another way in which gold has captivated humans. I think of how entire countries have used gold reserves in order to secure their economy. In the same way as the massive gold reserves of America held up in Fort Knox. On a more individual level, gold has also acted as a safety net. I recently heard a story from someone, around my age (which is 30ish), and his father was a German migrant who came to find luck in the gold-rich city of Johannesburg, doing odd jobs. He would save up enough money to buy a Kruger Rand and then secretly place it into a clothing iron which he would then send back to his mother in Germany. The scanners would never pick up the gold because going through any security check, it was encased in the metal plate of the iron. Today, the war in Ukraine has also fuelled a rush to invest in gold. In times of crisis and uncertainty people often come back to gold as their insurance policy.
Gold as a way to provide for one’s family
My father’s decision to take a job at a gold mining company stemmed directly from the intention and need to provide for his family. He worked hard and with good intentions to be able to afford placing my sister and me in a ‘good school’. He was generous with money even though we were never what I considered ‘rich’. The mineworkers who migrated to Johannesburg to do a dangerous and unhealthy job, only to earn a pittance of what those who worked in offices like my father did, were also aiming to provide for their families. The same can be said of the Zama Zama (the “people who keep on trying” and “the people who risk things”): the informal miners of Johannesburg, who face perilous circumstances in an attempt to find what gold is left in abandoned mines.
Gold as a polluter & driver of illness
Silicosis and TB are two of the distinct illnesses, that have faced predominantly black gold mineworkers as a result of working daily with toxic fumes and silica dust. Historian, Jock McCulloch, speaks of the higher rate of silicosis and TB in black mineworkers, due predominantly to their higher levels of exposure to silica dust. This, he says, was due to the role of black mineworkers in production, in comparison to white mineworkers, who were generally given more overseeing roles, and thereby distancing them from the more dangerous work.
It is not only mineworkers though who continue to face the health impacts of gold mining. For every teaspoon of gold extract, there is a tonne of waste, containing toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, chrome, lead, and uranium, which contaminates both the water and the air. Snake Park in Soweto, a community adjacent to a gold mine dump, is a clear example of where impacts of gold mining pollution are affecting the health of people. Exposure to radioactive waste, sometimes reaching 24 hours in a day, there is a high level of sickness in children, including many children being born with cerebral palsy.
Gold as medicine
Ironically, gold also acts as a medicine in some instances. I remember as a child when adults came back from the dentist, they often came back with gold fillings and crowns. Gold has played a significant role in other aspects of medicine, too. Prior to the adoption of antibiotics, German physician and microbiologist, Robert Koch, used a compound of gold to kill TB bacteria. It is still used to treat some forms of Rheumatoid Arthritis and is being used in cancer research. In Japan, gold is used for the art form of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is put together using gold to create something more beautiful and stronger. The very concept of Kintsugi provides a different kind of medicine: one for the soul. The art form is about embracing imperfection. Its process has been said to help people achieve acceptance and build resilience in difficult situations.
Gold as a tool to power our electronics
Gold is especially useful in an age dominated by technology and electronics. Gold conducts electricity well, and doesn’t tarnish or oxidise, preventing corrosion. The malleable nature of gold also makes it easy to be hammered into sheets or drawn into wires. As such, gold is the perfect metal for use in the delicate circuits that are required for our electronics like computers.
Gold as a way of saying I love you
With gold on my mind, I took the opportunity on a night out, to approach someone layered in gold necklaces, and asked her what gold meant to her. “Don’t think about it too much,” I said. “Whatever comes to mind.” “Love,” she said. It turned out that her husband regularly bought her gold jewellery to show her how much he loved her. I thought about how this too is a narrative perpetuated by the media. I could picture it there and then: a typical scene in a popular rom-com. A man has purchased his love interest a gold chain. She turns around and lifts her hair. He slowly places the chain on her neck from behind. He lingers as he clasps the chain, looking down at her with a loving gaze. This idea of love as gold, oftentimes reinforced in film and literature, has also been galvanised through advertising and notions like Valentine’s Day jewellery catalogues.
Gold as a sentimental heirloom
When I personally think of gold, despite its sinister sides, I do think of love too. The ring that sent me down the rabbit hole to write this piece, is a ring I wear every day, because it has meaning to me, as an heirloom from my late mother. After she took her own life, having suffered from a covid-related exacerbation of mental illness, the rings were buckled, from the way she ended her life. I held them in my hand, with love, and devastation. Besides my sister, it felt like the closest thing I had to her. We melted down the rings into two new rings so that my sister and I could each have one to keep our mother close. The first time I put the ring on, I looked down and saw my mother’s hand in mine. I felt happiness and abundant love, to have a version of something that she had kept close to her, for the 29 years that I knew her.
Gold as reframing, recycling, and moving forward
When my partner proposed to me, we discussed if we wanted to get actual wedding rings. We felt conflicted, not wanting to support the gold or diamond industry. Then we found Auterra, an artisanal jeweller in Cape Town, where I now live. The founder, Ashley Heather, is trying to ‘rewrite the modern story of gold’ by spending her days, “grappling with the ins and outs of single-source e-waste recycling,” and making jewellery exclusively out of gold and silver that has been recovered from electronic equipment, such as circuit boards and laptops. Whilst this comes with its own “questions about ethics, sourcing, inclusivity, and utilisation of resources,” Ashley contends that things “don’t need to be perfect before we can celebrate them”.
To me, this is the perfect example of acknowledging the dynamics of this world, and attempting to find ways to move forward, that are better for both people and the planet. I hope that in the future when I wear any of these rings – both gold from my mother, and gold from recovered electronic equipment – I will look down at my hand, and see all of these stories merging to form our present moment. That I will see the choices we have, from here on out, and to try to write new stories, with better endings.
Sarah Robyn Farrell has spent her career advocating for sustainability and socio-environmental justice. She fulfils a multiplicity of roles in the climate justice movement, including campaigner and organiser. She is also a writer and musician, using her crafts in the pursuit of a better world.