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Culture, Reality

Portraits of Miners

by Morrel Shilenge / 04.03.2013

The bloodbath in Marikana has been written for the whole world to see. The police and large parts of conventional society want us to label these miners as hooligans; violent and at times a danger to themselves and the rest of humanity. But when I visited the platinum belt of the North West recently, I saw a more compassionate and human side.

As a migrant work force, they have created their own community within society and a language that only they understand. I don’t claim to be an expert on the lives of miners, just an observer. A long line of my uncles worked in the mines for years. I learned how to speak Fanagalo from observation and proximity some time back. Social science states that us human beings are highly social creatures; what we wear, how we speak, the food we like, the music we listen to, our dominant moods, and our ambitions are all determined by the community we live in. We shape our communities and our communities shape us. This is what I discovered with the miners at Boshoek.

I was actually commissioned to photograph a public viewing of an AFCON match at the JIC Hostel in Boshoek near Rustenburg. I heard one of the miners speak Tsonga, and we started with the usual: where are you from? What are you doing here? I ask why there are so many Mozambicans who work here. He told me that most of the miners migrate from Botswana and Mozambique looking for work. He adds that they are not lazy to work. I have often heard the slurs that Tswana men are lazy buggers. The statement, “ijob ijob sbale” [work is work] slips off my tongue. While a large group assembled to watch the soccer on the big screen we provided, I took the opportunity to look around the hostel. Chatting to the miners, I bumped into Andries who held my hand to show me his room and the newspaper cuttings on the wall amongst the Kaizer Chiefs posters. Andries told me that he comes from Kuruman. After that we just talked about soccer.


So many times on this visit, I felt like an outsider intruding on a private community. The only commonalities were the language and soccer, but still I couldn’t really comprehend their daily struggles and living conditions. I couldn’t connect the way I wanted, conversations often ended abruptly with silence. At times it was as if the miners felt like subjects in a photograph. Their light-heartedness and constant joking put me at ease at times even though I was at war with my conscience. Before this, I had never truly understood the debate between objectivity and subjectivity in photography. Questions surfaced in my mind relating to ethics and to why I was taking pictures of these miners? What were my intentions of shooting these portraits? I had seen the passion that they had for soccer. I wanted to capture that without intruding. I saw them stand in line to be given free t-shirts and it made me uncomfortable. I saw gratitude, compassion and hope in their eyes. A hope for a better tomorrow.

Most of the days that I spent indirectly observing the miners, I was often left questioning my own reality, privilege and ignorance.

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*All images © Morrel Shilenge.

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