From democracy to disaster 27.04.1994-16.08.2021 read a placard that rested before two women who were sitting outside a tin roof house preparing to join a march shortly after the Marikana massacre in 2012. The signaling to 1994 was very deliberate. For many Black1 people, the 1994 elections marked the post-apartheid dawn, a rupture from the past, a dream, what they thought would be the end of devaluing their lives and treating them as second class and as disposable bodies. They saw it as beckoning towards a new beginning that would lead to the end of low wages, indecent work, and deplorable living arrangements that had characterized their lives during the colonial, segregation, and apartheid eras. It was a momentous year, what they thought was a positive turning point. As the years unfolded, however, troubling continuities unraveled, what Grossman (2016) calls the “continuing legacy of colonialism in everyday life”. In other words, the “change” came with continuities. It is these continuities I focus on here and use the mining industry as an example of how racial capitalism continues to disproportionately super exploit workers and poor Black working-class communities, even when they sit atop “mineral wealth”. In particular, I highlight the precarity that pervades their lives and the cost of platinum for them.
Instead of more justice, decent living and working conditions, decent houses, decent communities and regard for Black lives post-apartheid, what we have seen and what has been documented are continuities of racialized structural injustices. The country’s mineral “wealth” for the majority of Black people has not changed their lives for the better. Instead, mining has contributed generationally to more precarity and vulnerability, even to the point of death, as is the case with mining fatalities and the 16 August 2012 Marikana massacre that left 34 workers dead, with others injured and hospitalized.
Black working-class folks have seen, felt, and are living through the deepening economic, social, and political crises. With more shacks and more unemployed joining the informal settlements, more poverty and more inequality where they live. Now with Covid-19 they have also seen more deaths of those who look like them, because of lack of access to water, lack of spaces to isolate themselves, lack of access to proper and stocked health care facilities, to sanitation, and now to vaccines. This is the violence they navigate because of the systemic and structural anti-blackness of mining and racial capitalism that has shaped and defined their lives for generations.
Platinum, Precarity and Post-apartheid Continuities
In 2020, about 23% of South Africa’s population (about 1.3-1.4 million households) lived in informal settlements with no services or infrastructure (Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa and the Parliamentary Monitoring Group). In South Africa, informal settlements are linked firstly to the country’s colonial past, marked by land dispossession, forced removals, and displacement of Black people from arable land and urban areas. They are secondly linked to apartheid laws that restricted residence and movement of Black people, and finally, to the ‘post’-apartheid government’s failure to address the land question, live up to the constitutional promises (decent housing for all, basic infrastructure etc.,), upgrade informal settlements, and to provide working-class communities and people with amenities and services. Essentially then, informal settlements are a direct result of the current government’s failures and pro-elite policies, and the previous government’s anti-Black, anti-migrant, and anti-working-class laws, infrastructures and systems.
These informal settlements in mining towns, in particular, have existed since the early 1900s, but have been on the rise since the 1980s. Several factors help explain this rise. First, since the formal recognition of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982, one of their key demands was that hostels be abolished, family units built and living out allowance be given to those who did not want to stay on mine property (Forrest 2013). It is partly this living out allowance that has enabled workers to move out of mine hostels to build in informal settlements nearby (Alexander 2013; Chinguno 2013; Buhlungu and Bezuidenhout 2008; Bezuidenhout and Buhlungu 2011). This live-out allowance was lucrative to workers and seen as a way to increase wages by moving out of hostels and finding cheaper alternatives. But alternative accommodation was often in un-serviced informal settlements near shafts where they worked. That the political order was changing in South Africa from apartheid to ‘post’-apartheid also came with the freedom of movement for all.
On the one hand, workers were no longer bound to single-sex hostels; on another, their families in labour-sending areas could freely move to urban areas. Women who migrated to these towns migrated because of the crisis of social reproduction which had and continues to plague many rural areas, thus necessitating migration to not just any urban areas, but to ‘booming’ mining areas such as Rustenburg where they could get employment. Some of the women who currently live in informal settlements around mining towns tell stories of migration which was initially meant to be temporary, to look for either a husband who was no longer remitting money home, or a job that would supplement the low wages of mineworker husbands or support unemployed elderly parents and young children. Upon arrival in mining towns, men and women were faced with hardships, little income, and rented rooms in these informal settlements.
One of the towns that has seen a rapid rise of informal settlements in the past two decades is Rustenburg in the North-West province of South Africa. Despite mineral ‘wealth’ and an economic growth rate of 3- 3.5% pre-Covid-19, the Rustenburg local municipality had a disputed 38 informal settlements (Ashman & Fine 2013). According to research by Forrest (2015) and Benya (2015), people who live in informal settlements in Rustenburg are mainly from other mining towns where mining is on the decline, especially former gold mining towns. Others are from ‘traditional’ labour sending areas which are often rural or peri-urban, and a few are from other informal settlements within the province (Ndinda and Ndhlovu 2020). While unemployment is rife in South Africa, it is more so in these informal settlements. The few employed tend to be mineworkers or work in industries connected to or servicing the mines.
These mineworkers are the ones who dig and lash mineral- and metal-rich ore underground. So far in 2022, the average price of platinum has been hovering around $1,021 per ounce, about ZAR15, 365, thousands of Rands more than an average mineworker’s take-home wage. Yet, characterizing these informal settlements that are atop platinum is grim poverty, the absence of services and very limited basic infrastructure. That is the cost of mining we need to juxtapose with its price.
The cost of platinum includes the physically excruciating and mentally unforgiving work in the hot and humid underground, with rocks constantly threatening to fall. For subcontracted workers, the cost includes not enjoying the hard-won basic conditions of work, no union representation, no access to proper health care when they get injured at work, as underground workers often do, no decent wage even though they work long hours, under dangerous and inhumane conditions underground producing this so-called “wealth”. The cost also includes the precarity that has defined the lives of workers and Black working-class people post-apartheid. It is the humiliation and indignity they are subjected to due to grinding poverty in their informal settlements; the systematic and structural forms of injustices and oppression rooted in our history and in the current anti-Black politics in South Africa, which privilege and protect corporate capital at the expense of the Black masses. This cost of platinum is borne by those on the margins, who are expected to put their lives in danger and gamble with death daily. These are the vestiges of the apartheid workplace order that continue to haunt us in the post-apartheid era. The workers are in the crevices of the ‘wealthy’ mining world that depends on them and produces their marginality. The racialized informality, insecurity, vulnerability and precarity on all fronts are the order of their lives.
As I’ve written elsewhere, what strikes people as they enter Rustenburg is the contrast between ‘development houses’ and the many newly built shopping malls on one side, and informal settlements on another, with the working class and the poor residing in tin houses that have no running water and electricity. If the mines create ‘wealth’, not everyone is benefiting from it.
In mining, this precarity reached a boiling point in 2012 when South Africa witnessed a strike wave in the mining industry, starting in the platinum belt where Rustenburg is located. These strikes were initiated and driven by those on the interstices of precarity. By the time workers in Marikana occupied a hill around the informal settlement and demanded a living wage saying asijiki (there is no turning back), they had already been waiting for change since 1994. These workers were determined not to withdraw until their demand for a living wage of R12 500 (1200 USD) was met. What met them instead was a state-sponsored massacre. They demanded the ‘forbidden’, a ‘piece of the pie’. This massacre in post-apartheid South Africa has been seen as the most brutal state massacre since the end of apartheid. 2022 marks ten years since the Marikana massacre. Because workers did not get the living wage they were fighting for in 2012, in 2014 they again, together with mining communities including informal settlement dwellers, took to the hill and went on one of the longest platinum strikes in recent years. It lasted five months, and the demand was the same: a living wage. After five months, an agreement was finally reached, and workers received wage increases.
Workers and community members were prepared to starve temporarily to change the exploitative structural order of the mining industry in South Africa that has been the order of the day since apartheid. While they are now part of the “better paid” working class, their wages are still not enough, and they are far from a living wage. Their lives are marked by misery, hardship, indignities, and injustices. And this has been happening for generations. If you ask any mineworker how long they’ve been mining, most will reply by citing not only the years they’ve been working in the mines but also the years generations within their extended families have been working in the mines. Most date back to four and five generations, from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They also mention that they and those before them have given their lives to the mines, yet they’ve gained very little in return, and little has changed for their families generationally.
Above then is the other side of the industry that some embrace as a brimming model for growth and development. This is the cost that communities and workers pay. These conditions, produced by mines, are not ‘natural’. The conditions are the naturalized legacy of mining everywhere across this country. This is how mines choose to operate as they collude with the state and sometimes traditional authorities. Mine owners choose exploitation, and the policy choices made by those in power subject workers to inhumane living and working conditions. This is the story of most Black mineworkers, 10% of whom are from neighbouring countries. Their subjugation and exploitation are deliberate and rooted in the industry’s historical anti-Black sentiments. These conditions have ensured that urban mining spaces remain post-apartheid ghettos, marked by Black precarity.
To conclude then, I suggest, as many before me have, that we consider not the price of platinum, but the cost of platinum and consider the ways in which the cost of platinum is felt viscerally in mining communities, by Black workers and by Black women and how it too is a fuel to the waves of discontent that we see reverberate in different ways in different ‘corners’ of this country.
1 In South Africa the ‘official’ definition of Black includes everyone who is not White, i.e. Africans, Coloureds (population group comprising mainly the Khoi and San people, those who were enslaved and those who are mixed racially), Indians and Asians (i.e. descendants of immigrants from India, China and other Asian countries who came to South Africa and were naturalized before 27 April 1994).
Asanda Benya is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at the University of Cape Town and research associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
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