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Sociology from (South) Africa

Photo-essay: Jozi, the Precarious City of Gold

An abandoned gold mine shaft on the outskirts of Johannesburg which is being used again by informal miners. Photo by Alexia Webster. 

June 21, 2019

As Africa’s economic hub for over 125 years, Johannesburg – affectionately known as Jozi – is the world’s largest city not built on the banks of a river or near a large port. It has, instead, been built on gold. From its inception, gold mining transformed the world around it through constant innovation, stimulated by waves of migrants from across the region – and indeed the globe. This is evocatively captured in Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe’s collection of essays on Johannesburg, where they portray the city as a place of intermingling and improvisation, a city that is developing its own brand of cosmopolitan culture.

But there is another side to Johannesburg, a destructive side not only of human life, but also of nature itself. Johannesburg is, in Joseph Schumpeter’s words, a case of “creative destruction.” Unregulated mining in the abandoned mine shafts on the outskirts of the city could, some believe, destroy the city of gold.

Unmarked and hidden from the public is a thriving settlement of informal miners and their children. Desperate undocumented cross-border migrants have brought their families with them and eke out a precarious existence in hidden spaces not far from the city center. Photo by Alexia Webster.

The origins of the mining industry

Central to understanding the mining of gold in Jozi is its extremely sensitive cost structure. The challenge facing the early prospectors was not to find gold, but to find it in payable quantities. Profits were dependent on low production costs for two reasons. Firstly, because the average gold content of the ore is low and it is deposited deep underground. Secondly, the internationally determined price of gold prevents the mining companies from transferring any increases in working costs to the consumers. Consequently, within this narrowly circumscribed cost structure, the area of cost minimization has been wages. The historic task of the mine owners, then, was to create and contain a vast supply of cheap African labor.

Deep underground with minimum head space and precarious support systems, black miners prepare to blast. For many years afterwards, their work experience affected their health, most dying painful early deaths from respiratory diseases. Photo: Photographer Unknown, from the archive of Luli Callinicos.

Land dispossession and compulsory taxation forced the men into wage labor. They were housed in crowded single-sex hostels. They were not allowed to bring their families with them. The function of the family was to reproduce labor power, and to care for them back home when they were sick, injured, or old. In this way the vast peasant population of the region, in particular the women, subsidized the mine owners, enabling them to only pay the costs of maintaining a single person.

Mine workers resting on concrete bunks in a compound. One dormitory could house up to 40 men with barely the most basic provisions of storage, lighting, and heating. Photo: UWC-Robben Island Museum, Mayibuye Archives.
Two young white miner recruits beside an experienced black miner in 1907. Black miners earned roughly one-tenth of the white miner. Photo: Photographer Unknown, from the archive of Luli Callinicos, Gold and Workers, page 75.
Homeward bound. After a year-long contract mine workers make their way home laden with gifts for their families. Photo: Neave Africana Collection, Museum Africa Archives.
The homecoming. A migrant returns laden with gifts for his family in Mduduma in 1933. Photo: SA Review Pictorial, 1935-1936.

In order to maintain production, the mines went deeper and deeper into the bowels of the earth. The high accident rate on the gold mines is linked to the exceptional depths at which extraction of gold takes place. The average depth is more than 1,600 meters, with the deepest reaching over 4,000 meters underground. A major cause of accidents involves rock bursts and falls of rock. In 1983, the year we began our research, 371 miners were killed by rock falls. Between 1900 and 1985, 66,000 miners died underground and more than a million were seriously injured. Many men were permanently crippled by rock falls, spending the rest of their lives in wheel chairs or hospitals built for paraplegics.

Gold is a “wasting asset.” Over time, the amount of payable gold beneath Johannesburg was exhausted. The city’s population had grown exponentially and its secondary economy flourished to become the country’s largest financial hub. The mines stopped formal production and the sites were abandoned.

Women at a newly reopened abandoned mine grinding the ore with their babies on their backs. Photo by Alexia Webster.

Yet today, not far from the city center, you find cross-border migrants, as Janet Munakamwe has shown in her doctoral thesis, attempting to earn an illegal livelihood on the margins of the mining sector. They are known as the zama zamas. They go down every morning with primitive equipment, using ropes and torches on their mobile phones. They make their way to the rock face with simple hammers, spades/shovels, and chisels to crack the rock open and gather the ore.

A miner holds up the hammer he uses to break rock underground. Photo by Alexia Webster.
A “zama zama” with a large container pouring the slush into a bucket. Photo by Alexia Webster.
Woman miner brushing the fragments of the ore. Photo by Alexia Webster.

It is a risky business, writes Angela Kariuki: “There is the very real possibility of running out of food underground, especially when working for weeks (sometimes even months) at a time. They speak of the lack of air, where ventilation equipment is no longer working. They also report that some have suffocated, especially when they light fires either to keep themselves warm in very cold underground conditions, or to soften hard rock areas. And they speak of chest infections, persistent coughs, and physical injuries sustained during frequent rock falls, flooding or other accidents, or because of the lack of ankle-supportive safety boots.”

Combining grinding the ore with braiding hair and feeding the children. Photo by Alexia Webster.
The final product of hours of labor is a small nugget of gold. Photo by Alexia Webster.

Faced with the indifference of the established union movement, these miners are beginning to self-organize through social networks underpinned by social media. Very few belong to unions, but new forms of representation and participation are emerging, such as worker advice offices, burial societies, and migrant rights associations.

Informal mines, unlike the formal mining system of the past, involve both women and men, and their families. Photo by Alexia Webster.

But unregulated mining took a dramatic turn when the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, announced that the city faced a “looming catastrophe” (Sunday Times, November 25, 2018). Illegal miners, he declared, had brought the city to the brink of an unprecedented disaster as the zama zamas were blasting to within meters of highly inflammable gas and fuel lines under Johannesburg. Should one of these lines be damaged, he declared, everything within a 300m radius will be “incinerated.” An official from the city council told the Sunday Times that key parts of the city were also under threat of collapse due to the 140 km labyrinth of new and existing tunnels that illegal miners are digging or blasting beneath the city.

So the city that was built on the backs of gold miners faces collapse under the impact of desperate women and men struggling to find a livelihood as “illegal miners” in the abandoned gold mines of Jozi. While some may celebrate the “free market” and the entrepreneurial spirit of these brave miners, the unregulated market cannot, as Karl Polanyi observed many decades ago, “exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society.”

Mining communities affected by environmental destruction have formed networks to protect these precarious communities. Whether these initiatives could be the embryo of the countermovement envisaged by Polanyi seems unlikely, but it does support what Michael Burawoy and Karl von Holdt call, in their Conversations with Bourdieu, “the Johannesburg moment.” The Johannesburg moment, they write, is a post-apartheid moment, a moment of political rupture. It is also a moment of sharp contestation, social fragmentation and “a profound disordering of society.”

Alexia Webster, photographer <alexiawebster@gmail.com>
Edward Webster, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, member and former President of the ISA Research Committee on Labor Movements (RC44) <edward.webster@wits.ac.za>

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