The Lies of the Mines

By Valerie Reich

Wealth is based in gold. Jewelry is made of gold. Fashion is designed in honor of gold. But gold has a dark side.

Last night we went to the play Egoli which follows the lives of a few miners in working and living together in a mining community in Johannesburg. “Egoli”, which is a colloquial name for Johannesburg reflects the deeply upsetting conditions miners lived through during the years of apartheid and the effects these conditions had on their families. The play consists of a seven-person cast, with some actors playing multiple roles. The story highlights the degrading nature of the mines and includes a personal look into the cycle of broken hopes and families resulting from people’s dreams for a better life.

Our group, Basoto, has throughout our preparatory class and throughout this program in South Africa has focused on the lens of education, specifically the disparities between black and white educations. This play is a perfect example of the lack of opportunities for black youth during the time of apartheid. The lack of educational opportunities leads to up taking of horrible jobs with conditions that violate the basic sense of human rights.

For example Lebohang Motaung, who plays a miner, was the lead narrator throughout the play. This character left his family in rural South Africa to come to the Johannesburg mines to look for work. He discusses his internal struggle between having to choose between being apart of his family and supporting them financially, the typical male role during this period. He soon falls into a cycle of deep depression, extra marital affairs, and alcohol dependency. When he begins to spend more money on his vices than he is sending home to support his family, his son, played by Alfred Motlhapi, decides to follow in his father’s footsteps to the mines where he ends up dying in a collapsed mine shaft.

Motaung’s character witnessed and lived through the atrocious conditions of the mines, so why did he continue to work there? Why did he not warn his son or his family about the danger within the mines and the reality of his lifestyle? He kept the nature of his work secret because he had no other choice. We’ve learned throughout museums here and within our readings about the nature of the Bantu Educational Act. This act seriously limited the amount, types, and the nature of education provided to black and coloured South African students. There was no opportunity for Motaung’s character to learn another variety of skills to change his outcome in life or to push him into a different field. By limiting education for the blacks and coloureds, the apartheid government was also able to limit the scope of jobs that these people could eventually partake in. This went on to affect his son because his son was afforded the same education as his farther. Parents naturally want their children to succeed beyond them. Every generation should at least do a little better than the one before. Yet both father and son were denied basic education and their opportunity for careers were squashed into a mere few jobs they could obtain. Motaung’s character couldn’t succeed and leave the mines for another career because his educational background was so low he didn’t have the skills to accomplish another higher paying or less dangerous job and he didn’t have the skills to teach to his son this information because he spent his life in the mines trying to provide for the same son he eventually leads to death.

This entire play is a doubled edge sword. We saw the conditions of the mines further when we visited a former gold mining site in Johannesburg. The tour included a sampling of the noise levels within the mines and it was ear shattering and seriously disconcerting mentally. The idea of listening to that noise all day every day for months on end sends a shiver down my spine. It was no quality place for work. The miners were worked extreme hours, with limited food or drink, in the dark, all while loud ear shattering noises plagued the men. Beyond that, the men were barley paid any kind of wage and were forced to live in small over-crowded apartments.

But all of these issues come down to one basic inconsistency. There were no whites doing the hard labor down in the mines. It was all black and coloured men. Yes, white men might have had supervisory roles, but they were never the ones breaking their backs for hours on end each day. The miners were predominantly black and colored and that was because blacks and coloureds under apartheid government didn’t have the opportunities to succeed in fields that were opened to whites.

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