Asanda Benya has been awarded the Ruth First Prize for “The invisible hands: Women in Marikana”. The prize is for the most outstanding article published by an African author in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) for 2015. ROAPE is an academic journal committed to fostering quality research in African political issues. Winning articles for the Ruth First Prize are selected from the publication’s previous year’s volume of four issues. This is the fourth cycle of an award that seeks to recognise African scholars who are resident on the continent.
“The invisible hands: Women in Marikana” emerges from a much larger research project in which Benya investigates the experiences of women mineworkers on South Africa’s platinum mines. Her interest is in the socio-political conditions in post-apartheid South Africa – in particular the living conditions, employment struggles and class dynamics effecting women in mining communities. Humanities News spoke to Asanda about her work and specific research interest in the Marikana community
HN: What attracted you to researching SA’s women mineworkers in general and the women of Marikana in particular?
AB: I came across the topic by accident while researching working conditions of subcontracted workers in Platinum mines in the North West. Male mineworkers kept asking if I was planning to speak to women working underground to hear about their own working conditions. I then decided to find out more about ‘these women’, as they were called. Little was known then about women working underground and I found it an interesting angle because it linked to a couple of things I was intellectually drawn to; challenges faced by women who enter male spaces in post-apartheid SA and the construction of mining femininities.
When the 2012 Platinum strikes broke out, and when the Marikana massacre (yes massacre, not tragedy as some argue) took place, I was conducting my fieldwork in the mines in Rustenburg. Since my method of collecting data was participant observation, I had relocated to Rustenburg to work underground as a winch operator and to live with mineworkers for about year. On that day, that afternoon when the police fired bullets killing 34 workers I was underground, a few kilometers from the infamous Koppie. While the atmosphere in the shaft was usually fast-paced and noisy, the morning of August 17 was different. When I arrived at the shaft, the mood was somber, the air thick with sadness. Most workers did not want to go underground, and some were not even at work—they had gone to search for their homeboys, friends, relatives, fathers, and siblings who were mineworkers at Lonmin or residents in the Marikana vicinity. In the days that followed, workers continued to visit Marikana to see their families and friends. Some did not come to back work until days later because they had lost close family members and were helping prepare for the funerals. It took me a week to pluck up the courage to make my first trip to Wonderkop in Marikana, even though it was less than 30km away. After my first few visits and numerous conversations with women in the community I was struck by the role that they had played and yet no one was talking about them and their contribution to the struggle for a living wage. With their permission, it seemed fitting to write their narrative, which was completely ignored at that time, and claim space for them, not as peripheral players, but as key actors who kept the Marikana spirit and flame burning when men were arrested, others injured and 34 killed.
HN: The experiences of Marikana women have received some public attention – including a documentary film titled Mama Marikana produced by UCT alumnus Aliki Saragas. What did your research uncover that has either supported or differed from other enquiries into this community’s experiences?
AB: I’ve not seen the documentary, it was made much later, and from what I’ve heard about it, it confirms my ‘findings’. What I do in the article though is not only to claim space for women in the struggle for a living wage, but I demonstrate how women’s contributions reproduce labour and labour power for the benefit of capital, the extraction of surplus value. So I make a case for their important contribution not only in the struggles, but in the broader political economy of the mines. I demonstrate that without these women, their unpaid daily work, the mines would collapse. While not remunerated, they are the life blood of the mines. But because they fall and operate outside the “spaces of production” their labour is invisible.
HN: Can you share some of the most moving / revealing encounters you had during the course of your research in this community?
AB: I was struck by how the mines featured so prominently in the day to day lives of women who were not working for the mines, how the mine rhythms determined their getting up, activities during the day and going to bed at night. There was very little distinction between their ‘personal’ lives and their lives as directed by the mines. Mine work, the shifts, production targets set for mineworkers had a direct impact on women. Their lives were largely ordered and organized by the mines in ways too intimate - it was shocking. Since I had worked underground and had seen how hard mineworkers laboured, how they sacrificed, gambled and risked with and sometimes gave their lives in order to meet production targets (a demand by capital!) I was shocked to see how little they were paid - how much was reflected on their pay slips (no garnishee orders or debit orders). I was shocked by how they lived; they struggled to make ends meet, they had no electricity, no running water, no proper roads, sometimes no food, nothing. Yet their communities were in such proximity to the mines. It simply did not make any sense, none whatsoever.
HN: What does this latest accolade mean for your work and, on a personal level?
AB: The objective was to claim space for women in the grand Marikana narrative and the mines in general. It being made available freely online will hopefully advance that and continue to shed light on the day-to-day lived experiences of mine workers and mining communities in South Africa. It is important that we remember Marikana, we remember the workers who continue to struggle for a living wage and are met by bullets and ultimately what this all means in post-apartheid South Africa.
Benya is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town as well as a Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute, based at the University of The Witwatersrand. Her academic research interests include: labour studies, gender, labour and social movements, labour geographies, human rights issues as well as social justice in mining communities. She is currently completing her PhD in Sociology. As winner of the Ruth First Prize, Benya receives a cash prize of £1000 and, her article will available for free download on the Taylor and Francis website until 30 June 2017. In addition, her article will benefit from ongoing advertising by ROAPE and their publishers Taylor and Francis. Benya has elected to donate some of this prize money to the women in Marikana.
Remembering Marikana at UCT:
On August 15-17 the UCT Marikana Forum will host a series of events to commemorate the Marikana massacre. These will take place in the Centre for African Studies Gallery. There will also be a Photo-exhibition entitled “Life of mine workers: underground & above ground” .