Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Review

Cobalt Red: a regressive, deeply flawed account of Congo’s mining industry

Billed as an exposé, Cobalt Red simply rehashes old stereotypes and colonial perceptions of the DRC

Sarah Katz-Lavigne Espérant Mwishamali Lukobo
3 July 2023, 6.00am

An open pit cobalt mine in the DRC


Sebastian Meyer/Getty Images. All rights reserved

Cobalt Red: how the blood of the Congo powers our lives, by Siddharth Kara, has been making waves. Released in April and tailored for a non-specialist audience, it has quickly become a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller, as well as a bestseller in Amazon’s African Politics category.

The book centres on the mineral cobalt, currently sought after the world over for the production of high-end batteries. More than 70% of the world’s supply originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Kara’s project, he says, is to expose the trade’s dirty secrets for all of us to see.

Unfortunately, in doing so Kara has engaged in many unsavoury practices of his own. This book can teach us at least as much about how to not write a critical book on ‘modern-day slavery’ in Africa as it can about the artisanal mining industry. Its indulgent use of dehumanising rhetoric, lack of research ethics, and ignorance and/or erasure of local knowledge undermines Kara’s purported mission at every turn.

Cobalt Red is not a ground-breaking exposé, as it has been billed. It is the latest in a long series of White saviour adventure books that the DRC could sorely do without.

A colonial gaze

The colonial mindset of Cobalt Red makes for a disturbing read. While Kara accurately identifies many of the issues and actors at play, he greatly oversimplifies the analysis into binaries of victims and villains. The Congolese miners are portrayed as helpless and suffering, while most of the other characters possess a generally malevolent agency.

Kara’s consistent depiction of Congolese people as victims is at odds with his emphasis on the importance of Congolese lives. He replicates the dehumanisation he calls out, referring, for instance, to the “subhuman existence” of miners, or how they “scavenged” for leftover minerals “like birds picking at bones”. Or his description of a woman named Jolie:

Grief pressed hard against her slender frame. Her wide eyes were sunk deep within her face. The bones in her wrists seemed to stand up above the flesh. Her teeth were clenched like a skeleton’s. The skin on her neck had striated discolorations that appeared like ribbons. She breathed with a raspy cadence, but the voice that emerged was somehow reminiscent of the soft song of a nightingale.

His overwrought attempts to evoke an emotional response resemble writing on Africa from decades ago. Like Joseph Conrad did with Heart of Darkness, he reinforces colonial dynamics even as he purports to call attention to them. This form of narrative, as Arundhati Roy explains, commits the very sin it condemns:

Apolitical (and therefore, actually, extremely political) distress reports from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another malnourished Indian, another starving Ethiopian, another Afghan refugee camp, another maimed Sudanese…in need of the white man’s help. They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and reaffirm the achievements, the comforts and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world.

This is a spot-on description of the white, colonial gaze of Kara’s book. It makes little difference that Kara himself is not white – people of colour are also capable of inhabiting this mindset. His book recognises the continuities between DRC’s modern mining industry and colonialism, but it fails to see how pathologising Africans was a tool of the colonists as well.

The superior West

The outsider’s gaze is nowhere more obvious than when Kara makes simplistic comparisons between “our generally safe and satisfied nations” in the West and Congolese people in the DRC. He depicts the country as a place that does not exist in the modern age.

He notes, for example, that “people from another world awoke and checked their smartphones. None of the artisanal miners I met in Kipushi had ever even seen one.” It’s a passage that smacks of hyperbole. Smartphones are not difficult to find in the DRC, and the idea that many miners have never encountered one doesn’t ring true. Somebody with more local knowledge and experience than Kara would know that some artisanal miners can and do invest in smart phones. Those that don’t have almost certainly seen them around. But few would make the imprudent decision of bringing one to the mining site.

This is just one example of Kara’s failure to understand the lives of artisanal miners, including women, and to recognise that miners have lives beyond the site. People in this region do not just suffer until they die. They also live and experience joy, and research demonstrating the adaptability of informal artisanal miners directly contradicts the tired image of African workers as passive, static victims.

Cobalt Red denies Congolese the agency to shape their own futures.

Kara misses (or ignores) all of this because he is intent on portraying the DRC as an unchanging, suffering world out of time. He then injects that narrative with steroids by trying to write a call to arms. The result, as the New York Times described it, is a book that “takes the form of a righteous quest to expose injustice through a series of vignettes of exploitation and misery”.

This describes Kara’s narrative and political strategy well: double down on the pain; let no light in. The suffering in Cobalt Red is relentless. At one point he describes miners as “an ant colony of humans”. Elsewhere he says that:

An explosion of human beings was crammed inside the enormous digging pit, which was at least 150 meters deep and 400 meters across. More than fifteen thousand men and teenage boys were hammering, shoveling, and shouting inside the crater, with scarcely room to move or breathe.

Time and time again, Cobalt Red denies Congolese the agency to shape their own futures. It makes Kara’s work heavy with fatalism and inevitability:

From the moment Diego Cão introduced Europeans to the Kongo in 1482, the heart of Africa was made colony to the world. Patrice Lumumba offered a fleeting chance at a different fate, but the neocolonial machinery of the West chopped him down and replaced him with someone who would keep their riches flowing.

Despite moments like this of Western guilt, in general Kara’s worldview seems to be that West is best. He recounts a conversation in which a Congolese researcher suggests the situation won’t improve unless companies follow minimum standards, “Just like in America.” Kara chooses to leave that comparison there rather than engage with it. Yet corporate impunity is not a Congo-specific problem. Nor is child labour, which also exists in the US. Elsewhere, Kara marvels at how different everything looks after returning from DRC, including vegetables at the grocery store and flush toilets. The dichotomy he creates through exaggerated descriptions reinforces longstanding binaries between “developed” and “underdeveloped,” and is hardly helpful in an analysis of the effects of global capitalism.

Neo-colonial ethics

By far the most concerning issue with Cobalt Red is Kara’s disregard for ethical research practice, particularly when it comes to safeguarding children. In his book Kara describes a disturbing encounter with a child of about eight or nine. He was questioning her, and the child began to scream after he discovered that she was an orphan:

My translator tried to calm the situation, but Aimée would not stop screaming. I did not understand what I had done to upset her. Was my presence the cause of her panic? Did I ever stop to think that I might represent a form of violence to a child like her, a forced confrontation with pain?

The process of reflection that Kara describes is one that should have taken place well before setting foot in the DRC. It should have continued throughout the research, in part by consulting local organisations that work with child miners. But if his description of his own soul-searching is accurate, that did not happen.

This basic lack of ethical reflection and procedural rigour should deeply concern anyone who has endorsed or promoted Kara’s work. It appears that he conducted interviews with vulnerable children without the consent of a parent or guardian, without the necessary psychological support, and without considering the risk to benefit ratio. Despite his stated concern with preventing and exposing the exploitation of children, this very much looks like the exploitation of children. He notes that:

We would not send the children of Cupertino to scrounge for cobalt in toxic pits, so why is it permissible to send the children of the Congo? We would not accept blanket press statements about how those children were being treated without independently verifying it, so why don’t we do it in the Congo? We would not treat our hometowns like toxic dumping grounds, so why do we allow it in the Congo?

We’d like to add another question to his list: “we would not accept research being conducted on children and other vulnerable groups in Cupertino unless it passed a stringent ethical review process and came with the most rigorous safeguarding practices. So why do we allow it in the Congo?”

European explorers are notorious for ‘discovering’ things which were already well known. This is largely how Kara approaches the Congo and cobalt.

Other clear ethical breaches, such as giving a person’s first name and circumstances, or speculating on their HIV status, are similarly alarming. Academic researchers spend hours drafting their ethics applications, usually undertaking further revisions to finally secure ethics approval. They establish protocols for engaging with vulnerable respondents and sensitive topics, and ensure that both consent and confidentiality provisions are extended to everyone who participates in their research.

It is possible that Kara undertook some of this work, but his book provides no evidence of him having done so. If anything, his shock at respondents’ distress makes it seem like it’s the very first time he's considered ethical issues at all.

Ignoring Congolese voices

It seems likely that Cobalt Red’s clear pursuit of the ‘greater good’ has made it easier for people to turn a blind eye to these issues. The book has been sold as an exposé, and as Kara himself says during an interview with Joe Rogan, “I was the first outsider to get into this mine.” If this was all new information then it would be easier to forgive Kara for trying to maximise his impact, even if that meant taking a shortcut or two. Who wouldn’t accept that ‘for the greater good’?

That sense of self-importance, however, is a fundamental misrepresentation of the true state of knowledge. It demonstrates only a belief in one’s own marketing. In reality, most of Cobalt Red covers issues which have already been written about at length. The first high-profile report about cobalt in Congo was published in 2016 by Amnesty International and a Congolese organisation, Afrewatch. Since then, a steady stream of articles and exposés have come about the so-called “dark side” of the rush for Congolese cobalt, particularly with regard to the often-shocking conditions in which these are mined, including by child miners.

European explorers in Africa are notorious for ‘discovering’ things which were already well known and documented by Africans. This is largely how Kara approaches the Congo and cobalt. He effectively wipes the slate clean, pretending to have discovered things that are already well known. His main ‘contribution’ is to repackage things within a simplistic and sensationalist script regarding Africa and the Congo. At a time when many specialists have been trying their best to decolonise knowledge about Africa, Kara’s book instead pushes in exactly the opposite direction. Cobalt Red represents continuity of the colonial mindset, the colonial gaze, and colonial ethics.

Ironically, a Congolese ambassador in the US told Kara straight up that he should let local people fight their own battles. As Kara recounts the conversation, the ambassador “did not think a foreigner should be the one to make such a case on behalf of his people. He felt instead that the people of the Congo needed to speak for themselves about what was happening in their country, and he suggested that if I really wanted to help, I should go back and assist local researchers in doing so.”

It’s good advice, yet Kara failed to heed it. He is compelled to personally shed light on “a darker truth”, one “that cannot be fathomed”. A truth that – we must be clear – has already been openly written and spoken about for years by Congolese, regional, and international organisations!

None of this is benign. Blinkered in his pursuit of the greater good, it is clear that Kara failed to sufficiently think through – or to see as something that matters – the implications of producing this sort of book. His core assumption is that generating attention will have positive effects, but the sensationalism of his narrative could just as easily have negative consequences.

It could reinforce disempowered images of artisanal miners; make it more difficult for researchers to access cobalt-mining areas; and prompt increased security to prevent information from flowing from the cobalt mines. Kara exhibits little awareness of the fact that simplistic and sensationalist accounts make it more difficult to conduct good research in the future. Raising ‘awareness’ of complex problems is not always and automatically a positive outcome.

As we finished reading this book, we were left with one pressing thought: Kara was obviously able to secure good access to mine sites and interviewees. But he did so by breaking ethical rules that should be in place to protect vulnerable groups, and children in particular.

Ironically, there are close parallels between that and breaking the rules that seek to prevent the trade of unethical cobalt. Kara’s deeply problematic book puts him in a category much closer to the unscrupulous purchasers of cobalt than he would probably like to admit. Cobalt Red’s White saviourist, colonial gaze exacerbates the negative, overgeneralised global perceptions of Congolese artisanal miners and of the DRC, and further silence the voices of Congolese scholars, activists, citizens, and miners.

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