Gendered Navigations: Women in Mining

In reflections on her fieldwork in South Africa, Asanda Benya writes about the difficulties and insights she gained while researching underground female mine-workers. Some of these ideas are expanded upon in her award-winning ROAPE article The Invisible Hands: Women in Marikana (Volume 42, Issue 146, 2015). readers can access this prize-winning article online for free until 30 June 2017.

By Asanda Benya

In July 2008 I set out to Rustenburg, a platinum-mining town about 130km north-west of Johannesburg. For almost three months I lived and worked with mine-workers to ‘study’ women who had recently been employed to work underground. To get a broad understanding of the challenges that were facing women in the mines I worked with different teams that had women in their complement. For 7 to 8 hours every-day we lashed ore, installed ventilation and water pipes, cleaned stopes and connected blasting cables. This short research stint aroused my interests into the lives of female mine-workers.

In 2011 and 2012 I returned to study identities in mining. I was interested in how women make sense of themselves against the masculine underground and mining culture. In the months that followed I not only saw the changes and heard about them, but I was also roped in. I had to change how I walked, talked, acted and thought. My co-workers told me that I had to “forget myself” when going underground. Others told me that if I wanted to be safe, productive and to ‘fit-in’ with the underground world I had leave my surface self behind and adopt an underground self. The underground self was fearless, took risks and prioritized meeting production targets. Sometimes women in their underground selves acted more like my male co-workers, very different from their surface selves. Indeed, some women often remarked that they were “men at work, and women at home”. They admitted to changing how they behaved in the multiple spaces they navigated. It is these shifts in women’s gender performances and identities that my study was concerned with. To get at these gender performances and gendered identities I spent almost a year working underground as a winch operator, and a general labourer, pulling blasted rock from the stope face to the tip.

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Asanda Benya and a colleague taking a break after barring down loose rocks and preparing the face for drilling and blasting

Drawing from my field notes (Thursday 30 August 2012) below I take you through a typical day at work, and how we navigated spaces in mining.

My alarm rings, it is 3h30 in the morning. I’ve hardly slept and I’m as tired as I was when I went to bed last night. I get very anxious at night; I worry about being late and missing the cage, I think about accidents, what if something happens while we go down the cage, what if rocks fall while we’re inside the stope, what if we don’t meet production targets and my team does not get bonuses, what if I cause an accident with the winch, what if, what if… I get out of bed, get ready for work and leave my room to the kitchen block… It’s now 4h20 and outside it’s 5 degrees Celsius. I’m supposed to be underground by 5h15, if I don’t leave soon I’m going to miss my cage and be late for work… At least I’m no longer working on the levels that have to be underground by 4h15am as I did in June and July, the coldest months in Rustenburg. I leave the residence and I pass through the town of Rustenburg at 4h40. Around the taxi rank it is buzzing with activities, the women hawkers who target mine workers are already here selling food and warm beverages. After passing town I join a township which links me to the shaft, along the road are a number of men and women mine-workers hitch hiking.

 Just before the shaft, on both sides of the road, in English and fanakalo, are written boards with the different mine rules; the five golden rules of barring, the mining and engineering platinum rules. At the bus stop scores of men hop-off the mine bus and women descend from taxis. As you swirl through the first gate, starring at you are boards declaring the latest statistics; fatality free shifts, accidents, deaths and production targets.

 A long row of hawkers follows, workers are buying fat cakes as they pass, or steamed bread, boiled eggs, or a sephatlo [sephatlo is a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with fried potatoes, archar (pickled spicy vegetables), polony (processed meats) and cheese], a popular cuisine with mine-workers. These usually go with a frozen 500ml fizzy drink, peanuts, sweets and or gum. Facing the workers as they buy are more sign posts about safety, “We believe we can mine without any accidents, please help us achieve this” a few feet down another one reads “We believe we can mine with zero injuries”. On top of some of these signs are small posters advertising traditional healers who can “bring back a lost lover, help those who are bewitched, protect your job, help you win the lottery or promotion at work” and some are advertising good places to do an abortion. There are also funeral notices and details of departure points for buses transporting workers to the funerals.

Before you enter the second gate a mine sign board reminds you of the company slogan, following that is another reminder that no person under the age of 18 is allowed on mine premises and the last one with bold wording “NO HIGH HEEL SHOES OR SANDALS PERMITTED ON PREMISES”.  It is another world now.

The shaft is ringing with energy, people are rushing and running; to the office, to the change houses, to the cage station, to the lamp house. There is a lot of activity, a lot of energy and this is what it looks like every day. Except two weeks back on the 17th of August when the mood was sombre, deafening silence, after the 34 mine-workers were killed in Marikana… I clock in on the second gate, pass the mine offices, pass the manager, and supervisor change houses. I rush quickly and clock into the women’s change house. I am welcomed by a heap of clean overalls on the floor and 3 large dust bins with dirty overalls, and then it’s our lockers, showers and toilets. I find some women from night shift showering, some scrambling through a pile of clean overalls in their row looking for theirs.

I quickly change to my personal protective equipment (PPE) and ‘mgodi (underground) clothes’; my first layer is my mgodi T-shirt, and mgodi leggings for ‘protection’ (or to fit in, or to follow the morning ritual), the second layer is my long socks, my overall, hard hat, gumboots. I finally put on my knee pads and belt and then I exit the change house to go to the lamp house. I hear the announcement on the intercom that it’s the second last cage to my level (level 23), so I quickly run to get my lamp, I test it and put it on, rushing towards another gate that leads towards the cage yard. There are more funeral notices, Union (AMCU) announcements and sign boards about PPE. I swipe in one last time and I am inside the waiting place or should I say the ‘pushing place’ that takes me to the cage yard. I put my card away here because it’s easy to lose it, luckily, the last gates which allow you access to the cage yard are controlled by cage attendants.

 Just as I arrive I find workers from my level screaming at the cage attendant who has just repeated the announcement that this is the second last cage to our level. “How could she do that when there are so many of us to level 23?” they ask. I look around for Tee, the woman I’m working with, all the men start screaming at me, thinking I’m skipping the queue. I don’t see her, or any woman for that matter, there aren’t many of us anyway. I go to the back of the queue and wait for the last cage to my level. Workers are talking about blasts, targets, rocks that need to be supported and unfair shift-bosses. The attendant remotely unlocks the entrance to the cage yard and those in front push through. After about what seems like a hundred workers, she remotely locks the main entrance… they all walk to the different cage decks, top, middle and bottom decks. I’m still at the back, it does not even look like the queue has moved from where I’m standing. She opens the main gate again and this time I run, I skip the queue, embarrassed but I’ve done it before and I know how to ignore their screams when they catch me.

Finally I make it through the main entrance to the cage. A notice stares at me “before you enter the cageS you must wear the following PPE”. When I get to the cage gate, I approach the door of the bottom deck, all the decks look full already, that means I have to push the guy in front in order to fit. As I turn to face the front so that I can use my back to push, a few more workers are also charging towards the same deck and they push as soon as they get to the door. The ones inside the cage tell me to thayiter, it’s fanakalo for holding yourself tight. I try to thayiter but the cold whistling wind at 5h10am in the morning gets the better of me and I start to shiver, even more as I enter the cage not knowing what awaits me underground. In order to thayiter, you have to freeze your whole body, no movement, get a grip of every muscle and pull it in but don’t sense it. When you’ve done proper thayiter, you don’t feel the cold, you stop sensing anything external, and you fight to be still. To thayiter is more than tightening your body or making it still, it goes all the way to your mind, it’s like you physically and instantaneously ‘grab’ your mind, like you want to suffocate it, but without actually suffocating it but through calming it and then instruct it to make still your body. This was the only process I had followed the few times I managed to thayiter. There are what looks like 50 or more of us in my deck, another 100 or so in the two decks above this one.

The cage acts as a bridge between the surface world and the underground world. It takes workers down or up the shaft. Even though the cage is a space that is inhabited temporarily, in passing, it still has its own rules and exists independently of either the surface world or underground world. It is its own space.

From the mouth of the cage I find myself pushed all the way to the back. I wonder if other women ever get used to the cage. After so many months I still get shocked. It’s a rude awakening. Just when you think the cage cannot take any more people, you’re suddenly pushed all the way to the back, somehow, and 15 to 20 other workers make their way in, at that time you are floating, your breasts squeezed between hard hats and your feet dangling in the air, you cannot feel your boots, it’s dark inside and you cannot even see who is standing next to you. You cannot switch on your head lamp, it’s an unwritten cage rule and if you ignore it, the wrath of all the fifty or so workers in your deck will be on you, so you’re safe dangling in the darkness.

This suspended pose becomes your position for the next 2-4 minutes as the cage gate is shut aggressively by the attendant. As the cage violently moves from surface to your level underground, you feel every bump it makes against the wall, the whistling cold wind coming from the ventilation shaft next to you. My lamp is switched off, hands crossed around my breasts because male workers tend to target breasts when they want to touch us (women) in the darkness of the cage.

All this discomfort prepares us for the dungeons that await us. Suddenly the cage motion is slow and light rays slip in, slowly we stop in our level, level 23. We’re underground now. The cage door opens and the first group of workers are pushed out, as my feet drop down, I try to reach for my head lamp to turn it on, but those behind me are already pushing me out. I’m lucky I make it out without tripping and falling. If you fall, everyone shouts at you because you’re taking up their walking space and slowing them down. I then join the scores of workers who walk the haulages to their different work places and stopes.

In the waiting place (male) workers quickly change into their torn overalls and plastic bags, some start eating and as soon as everyone is done changing, in our cliques we leave for the stope, climbing the long and steep staircase and to make it easy I count them, re-starting after every twentieth step. There are 118 of them so I make up for the ‘missing’ two by including my first and second steps into the centre line where the tip is located. From there some workers start assessing the place we blasted last night. It’s called ‘early entry examination’. We complain about the night shift that did not fix the mtiya-tiya (ventilation curtain) after the blast. Tee and I slow down to examine our winch and fill in the check list… we catch up with the rest as they enter the stope where the crew will drill for the next 8 hours. On the right hand side is the madala sites (an old already mined out place) where we are prohibited to enter. The stope, the centre line and the tip is where I will be for the next eight hours or more; toiling, navigating the rocks, lashing, winching or barring them down. It is 5h50am and we start with our daily drill.

In the spaces I mention above, possibilities of death, accidents and injuries, rape, sexual harassment, heat exhaustion were common realities. Also common were conversations or ‘grumbles’ from workers about not getting a share of the wealth they felt they produced.

The discontent of the workers in the platinum sector was brought to bear when workers from different mines organised and went on several strikes in 2012. Workers had very clear demands in these strikes. In some mines they wanted R9500 after deductions and in other mines they wanted R12 500, later it was R16 000.

These strikes shook the industry and brought it to its knees as production stopped in some mines. What followed, however, what we have come to know as the Marikana massacre, shook the very core of the country and the ideals that South Africa had come to define itself by. During the Marikana massacre 34 mine-workers were killed by police while gathering on a hill outside the mine gates, demanding a living wage of R12 500.  About 78 more were seriously injured and about 270 workers were arrested, tortured and, under an apartheid era law, charged with murdering their co-workers. This happened less than 20 kilometres from our shaft, while my team and I were underground, finishing off drilling and charging holes with explosives.

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Asanda Benya operating a winch – a machine which scrapes ore from the blasted face to the tip

Some of my co-workers had siblings working at the mine where the strike and the massacre took place. This became more of a reality the following day when some of them did not arrive at work because they had gone to look for their fathers, siblings and homeboys. This was an emotionally raw day in the mine where sadness engulfed the shaft. The cage seemed slower that day, the mood quiet and sombre. Now and again workers asked each other if so-and-so had been seen, or if he went to Marikana to look for his brother. Responses were short and voices low, “he left yesterday as soon as we got to the hostel and hasn’t been back since” or “he was still at the hospital checking if his father was amongst the injured” or “he was told to go to the morgue to identify the body and won’t be coming in today”.

Everyone was affected and rather than bracketing my emotions or keeping an emotional distance from the workers, I had to engage. For Patricia Hill Collins, to have emotions in research indicates validity and credibility. The fact that everyone seemed to know someone in Marikana (or someone who knew someone), except for me, brought home privileges that I had not reflected on until that moment. It also complicated what I had come to believe about myself as one of them (or as close enough) and exposed the limitations around the notion that I was one of them, and the distance that could not be erased by my close relationships at an individual and macro level.

The massacre was a moment of methodological and identity rupture for me (as a ‘citizen’ and as a researcher) and called for a different level, and different way of reflecting about what it really means to be ‘one’ with the workers or to do public sociology in post-apartheid South Africa. Marikana was a turning point on many levels; for the country, for mine-workers, and for myself doing research and how I understood my position and role, whether I would leave and go to a “safer” place (the university), or stay in the mines and make a contribution, no matter how small or insignificant. It was a destabilizing moment. As an ethnographer and as a mineworker, it was essential to be on the ground; and as an actor or participant, both in the mining and South African “public”, I had a responsibility to be present and contribute.

Maintaining a distance, or being detached, as positivists advocate, was not a possible or morally available option. Ethnography, by definition demands that one is fully immersed in the lives of those being studied. It seemed to me that to detach at that moment would have been to work against the very logic of what constitutes participant observation.

The Marikana massacre was indeed a day that turned many lives upside down, more so those of the widows of the slain Marikana workers. Yet, thousands more workers continue to make the journey described above, they continue to navigate underground in the hopes of improving their lives and those of their children.

Asanda Benya works in the Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town and she is a Research Associate of the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Featured photograph: Asanda Benya lashing ore


  1. Thank you for publishing this fascinating piece. That Asanda Benya conducted research on, and with women miners is a tremendous accomplishment in itself, thus having challenged this ostensibly exclusively masculine setting. But the article is also exemplary in terms of methodology and epistemology as it speaks of the power of close-up ethnography, and even more so of the immense significance of emotions and affect in knowledge production and intertwined with political and social activism. I am thrilled to see Benya’s outstanding work as a scholar who is passionate about the power inherent in great anthropology to not only see and understand people but to contribute to make a world worthy of the potential of humanity, For long feminist studies and critical anthropology have had much in common. Both reject positivist and objectifying approaches as fundamentally reproducing power and dominance. Critical (‘radical’) contemporary anthropology insists that knowledge production occurs in the interaction of researchers and their interlocutors, and is shaped in the very interaction. Which is however much impacted upon, through certainly not determined, by macro socio-economic and, political macro structures. So great contemporary anthropology is both actor-centred and places much emphasis on historical material conditions. At the same time it reflects on the researcher’s own insertion in the context where they work and the research process in which they engage, as well as in the writing. All this certainly cannot be, should not be detached from emotional and affective engagement! Benya’s superb piece exemplifies all this at its best — very happy to see such excellent ethnography emerging beyond the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology!!

  2. This is a good and a well researched article.Proud of you. It gives us a picture of what women go through every day, let alone in the mines.Never knew.Knowledge is power. Feel more empowered especially this important month for women.


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