Medicine chest: Gold miners in SA, such as Siponono Phahlam, often struggle with health issues including silicosis. Picture: SOWETAN
Medicine chest: Gold miners in SA, such as Siponono Phahlam, often struggle with health issues including silicosis. Picture: SOWETAN

In SA, gold mining is often discussed in terms of numbers and value. We talk about the value of gold, the number of miners trapped underground in various accidents or the number of illegal mining sites.

What an emphasis on numbers erases, however, is the humaneness of miners, and the intersection of bodies, commodities and the endurance of violence wrapped up in the vortex of gold mining.

The lack of attention to the individuals involved in mining is what makes Lucas Ledwaba and Leon Sadiki’s Broke and Broken: The Shameful Legacy of Gold Mining in South Africa such an important, deeply troubling book about the exploitation of gold miners and the underside of SA’s mineral wealth.

After reading this book, the name Egoli (the place of gold) evokes a much different resonance of the history of Johannesburg.

The book foregrounds the stories of individual miners and their families.

Through a combination of reporting and photojournalism, they show how the unsustainable process of mining produces a seemingly sustained set of circumstances that have naturalised the poverty of generations of black men from Lesotho and the Eastern Cape.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first section, Ledwaba and Sadiki — who previously wrote We Are Going to Kill Each Other Today (2013), about the Marikana massacre on August 16 2012 — describe the lives and lived experiences of a series of "broke and broken" men and their families.

The second section, entitled The Orphans, is particularly devastating, as it illustrates the generational effects stemming from the exploitative infrastructure of gold mining.

In the final section, the focus shifts to the broader legal context surrounding the conditions to which gold miners are subjected, and the prolonged effects of silicosis.

There are two themes that emerge across the pages: silicosis and the generational violence of gold mining.

Silicosis is a dust produced from the activity of mining that gets trapped in one’s lungs with ruinous consequences.

Silicosis, as Ledwaba and Sadiki write, "is incurable. It eats away slowly at the human lungs, causing the sufferer to endure a slow, painful death", in what becomes a metaphor of sorts for the unseen, unheard and unwritten stories of these men and the families of those who have perished as a result of mining for gold.

In the fourth chapter, Mzawubalekwa Diya, one of thousands of retrenched miners due to poor health, describes the effects of silicosis as "a haze of dust, dust and more dust" that "covered everything underground, in the air, at ventilation sites, on the walls, in the tunnels, on his tongue, ears, face, hair, hands, work overalls and even their work tools".

The striking takeaway from this book is the generational violence that gold mining has visited on thousands of families.

Throughout each chapter are mentions of strings of young black men, ranging from grandfather to grandson, who have gone off to the mines in search of money, and died as a result.

In the third chapter, Siwinile Ndabeni explains how his father died at the age of 39 from tuberculosis due to working on the mines for 23 years.

Silicosis is incurable. It eats away slowly at the human lungs, causing the sufferer to endure a slow, painful death
Ledwaba and Sadiki

Siwinile works on the mines in Carletonville.

His brother, Andisa, started working in 2011 and their younger half-brother, Anele, also ventured to the mines earlier in 2016.

Later in the book, the generational effects of gold mining are described. They illustrate how deeply embedded the violent trajectory of mining is within families. Between 1986 and 1996, more than 100,000 Basotho men were employed by various mines.

According to a representative from the Mineworkers Development Agency, "in an extended family of 50 people, more than 15 of the men including grandfathers, fathers, brothers, uncles, sons and grandchildren, worked on the mines".

Broke and Broken does indeed live up to its title and captures the shameful legacy of gold mining in SA.

Although readers might be put off by the sustained images of violence and the lived experiences of these individuals, this book is undoubtedly crucial, because we live in an unequal society that has the tendency to reduce poverty to a problem, statistic or talking point.

This book moves successfully beyond the numbers and shows the vulnerable humanity involved in mining, and how the broader effects of gold mining will endure well into the country’s future.

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