Photo-essay: Jozi, the Precarious City of Gold

by Alexia Webster, photographer and Edward Webster, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, member and former President of the ISA Research Committee on Labor Movements (RC44)

The complete version of this article including the photographs is available in the PDF version of Global Dialogue 9.2, pp.50-54.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

Direct all correspondence to:
Alexia Webster <>
Edward Webster <>

, South Africa, Volume 9, Issue 2

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