Nelson Mandela Foundation

On the 15th of October, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in collaboration with the Hanns Seidel Foundation and Breathe Films, hosted a dialogue titled “Mining Bodies” in line with its mandate to address poverty and inequality as well as to reckon with the past. The dialogue delved significantly into the lived conditions of mineworkers, mining communities and South Africa’s historical economic reliance on the mining industry. Preluding the conversation, the Mining Bodies exhibition was opened at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory.

 The exhibition reflects on the impact of South Africa’s gold mining industry in Southern Africa with a specific focus on the consequences of gold mining for public health with regard to the occupational lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis. It is presented through images, films, documents and sound elements drawn and created from industrial and state archives dealing with occupational health and mining ranging from the earliest period of gold mining, the 1880s, to the present.

When Breathe Films first approached the Foundation for assistance with archival research on the mining sector, the Foundation gave assistance by facilitating access to the Thebe Archives. At this early stage of the project, the Foundation was faced with ‘The Archival Challenge’: withstanding the constitutional right to information, information is not readily available. Many records from the colonial and the Apartheid eras have been destroyed, locked away by the state, privatized and illegally removed.

Verne Harris, Head of Knowledge and Leadership Development at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and facilitator of the dialogue, framed the conversation with the reality that our nation “won’t reckon with our past or make our constitution a reality until we address the patterns of migrant and mine labour.”

One the panel were Catherine Meyburgh and Richard Pakleppa, producers of the Dying for Gold documentary, Nikisi Lesufi from the Minerals Council South Africa (formerly the Chamber of Mines), Dr Asanda Benya, from the Sociology Department at the University of Cape Town and an activist who has done extensive research on women and the mining industry, as well as David Van Wyk from the Benchmark Foundation.

After the discovery of gold in 1886, mining companies have used their influence on governments in the region to establish the migrant labour system which guaranteed a steady stream of cheap labour to the mines. South Africa moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy because of the intervention of the mining industry.

Dr Asanda Benya opened the line of enquiry by reflecting on the ways in which mining has historically shaped our economy and our race relations: On the end of the spectrum, mining has been a blessing to the mine bosses and owners as well as the political elite. It has largely benefitted the lives and identities of white urban families who continue to enjoy the benefits of the cheap labour from black migrant families.

“The mines eat men. Even when you have left them the mines may be eating you.”

  • Thandile Qwalele, passed away 2009 from lung disease, aged 49

 The issue of mining is not exclusive to the mineworkers themselves, but also impacts the communities surrounding them. David Van Wyk, from the Benchmark Foundation, shared the findings from research undertaken in the South African former blacks-only townships which are predominantly adjacent or in close proximity to mine dumps. Townships are affected by toxic heavy metals blown through the communities from the nearby dumps and unrehabilitated mines. Traces of uranium, silica and lead are found in community members’ blood and respiratory systems, leading to disproportionate levels of chronic coughing and other respiratory problems.

Catherine Meyburgh and Richard Pakleppa, from Breathe Films, posed very troubling questions for the audience to consider. Catherine had been working on a documentary in the early 1990s wherein she discovered how 800 - 900 mineworkers were dying per day from the mining industry while upholding the industry that was the bedrock of the South African economy at the time. The mining industry provided the capital on which universities, hospitals and medical aids have been built. “People die on our behalf for the lives we live”, shared Catherine, to which Richard added: “Do we accept an economy that is based on harming and/or killing people?”

The Minerals Council South Africa, represented by Nikisi Lesufi, shared the various initiatives and programmes the Council has put in place to restore the dignity and wellbeing of mineworkers and the communities affected by unrehabilitated mining sites and mine dumps.  Lesufi Shared feelings of shame about the terrible history of mine labour in South Africa and expressed remorse that the Council continues to fail to achieve its target of 0 fatalities in the mines. Currently, Lesufi shared, 38 people die in the mines per year. While this is a vast improvement, it is 38 too many. 

On the matter of the harm caused to communities, Lesufi insisted that “the dumps are generally there before the communities. Communities actually encroach on the dumps. The state has the obligation to rehabilitate the dumps; due to capacity as well as ideological priorities, the state has failed that mandate”.

Dr Benya closed the panel by sharing a personal account of growing up in the Eastern Cape and watching families sending the men and boys in their families to go enlist in the mines to provide an income for the family. “When people start working in the mines, you are turned into an object to be productive in the ways the industry needs you to be productive.” reflected  Dr Benya.

The interactive and immersive exhibition is currently in the temporary exhibition space at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory. To make an appointment to view, please click here