Where blood and gold mix
Women in communities propped up by illegal mining are pushed deep into the margins of invisible society, subject to rape and domestic violence. Ufrieda Ho reports for HEALTH-E from Durban Deep mines on the Gauteng West Rand.
Streetlights would help, so would more water tanks and proper locks for houses too. These are wishlist items. But they’re also pleas from people living around the abandoned Durban Deep mines on the West Rand. People here can all too easily join the dots between basic shortages and rape and violence – which is normalised, everyday reality.
“If we can just have electricity on the streets, not in our houses even,” says Mdu*, in his living room. It’s the middle of the day but it takes time to adjust to the darkness in the room. When the sun sets, the neighbourhood streets are swallowed into the dark throat of night.
Sometimes Mdu wishes he could keep his two high-school daughters indoors all the time. He says they’re often harassed by men in passing cars as they walk to and from school. They also have to fetch water from council tanks, which runs dry by around 4pm every day. This leads to routine violent fights and his point is made when a weeping teen walking along the dirt path outside his house stops and unwraps a wad of toilet paper from her hand to reveal lacerations and swelling. She had been beaten by a woman as they jostled for position in the water queue.
Mdu shakes his head and shrugs, not from indifference but because this is warped normal in the West Rand community. Different rules apply for a community that exists in society’s shadows; a place of illicit mining and illegal trade of gold.
Constance* ekes out a living as a rock crusher. Crushers are mostly women who pound rubble and rocks for about R50 per 50kg bag. This is the first step in the crude processing of the ore. Constance is Zimbabwean and often stops in at Mdu’s house where he also runs a spaza shop. Her children, back in Zimbabwe, don’t know the work she does.
“I will never tell them that I am a crusher but there are no other jobs,” she says. She’s been in the country for 15 years and is undocumented. Each day she joins dozens of crushers who clot the shaft exits that have pockmarked the mine dumps along the West Rand for about the last decade or so. They remain hunched over the ore from dawn to dusk.
“At night, I stay in my room and I just pray nothing happens to me. Some women have boyfriends but not me, I’m alone here. And even if something happens you can’t go to the police, they don’t help us.”
Police failed Josephine* (59) who lives a few kilometres away in Sol Plaatjie settlement, surviving as a recycler. In 2014, a man broke into her home that was secured with a basic lock. The man beat her and raped her then fled the scene.
“He left his shoes behind but they didn’t find him,” she says speaking through her son Sipho*, who translates for his mother.
That night, covered in blood, she ran into the streets and managed to flag down a police car. She was taken to a clinic and later to the Roodepoort police to open a case and to give a statement. Josephine hoped it was the first steps in getting justice.
“Till now police have never come back. I went to look for this man myself because I believed he must be living in the Mandela squatter camp but I never found him and police never found him.
“My mother is not alright since this thing happened. I stay here now with her because I don’t want it to happen again,” says Sipho.
Janet Munakamwe, a PhD candidate from Wits’ African Centre for Migration Studies who has made migrants here the focus of her research, says undocumented migrants and women in particular are among the most vulnerable: “In these communities, a woman is seen either a crusher or a sex worker – so skewed is the social structure. Undocumented miners and crushers suffer multiple levels of criminalisation and there are high levels of domestic violence and rape.
“Many Zimbabwean women arrive here having being raped while smuggling across the Limpopo to get to South Africa. Rape becomes what they expect. Even when it comes to domestic violence here in Durban Deep, they just accept rape and abuse because they believe that, without the man they’re with, they will not survive. Also, many police who arrest undocumented women demand sex from them to look the other way,” says Munakamwe.
Community activist Cora Bailey, who heads up CLAW (Community Led Animal Welfare) has worked in these vulnerable communities since the early 1990s. She has seen illegal mining mushroom, service delivery deteriorate, the rule of law become blurred and violence and brutality become a new normal in a scramble over scarce resources in toughening economic times.
“Gang rapes, murders and violent clashes happen all the time and people don’t have access to healthcare, police, the courts or emergency services because they don’t have papers they can produce to authorities. People fall off the radar and authorities turn a blind eye,” says Bailey.
But not looking won’t make problems go away. This community swells and also erupts. Still, migrant miners arrive joined by a group of newcomers: laid-off South African miners. And with them come the women who will be crushers and inevitably sex workers.
“By February next year there will be even more zama-zamas and crushers,” says Munakamwe. “Migrants miners go home and put on a brave face and when others see them they want to follow in their footsteps; they also want a chance to look for their piece of gold.”
Reporting for this story was supported by Code for Africa’s impactAFRICA fund.