Inside Marikana

Asanda Benya, recipient of the Ruth First Prize, believes the role of women on South Africa's mines has been ignored.

When Rosebank resident Asanda Benya emerged from the mine on August 16 2012, she could not make sense of what was happening.

Having spent all day in punishing temperatures underground, learning of the atrocity that had played out a mere 20km away seemed beyond comprehension. Thirty-four mineworkers – husbands, fathers, brothers and sons – lay dead at Wonderkop in Marikana.

These were people known to everyone who worked the Rustenburg mining belt. It was inevitable that someone would know a victim of the greatest atrocity in post-apartheid South Africa, be they the lifeless bodies at Wonderkop or those they had left behind.

For Ms Benya, who since 2007 had been living and working among the women of Marikana as part of her Master’s and PhD research projects, the moment represented a break from all that had gone before. Suddenly it dawned on her that she was “not one of them”; that for these thousands of workers and their wives, whose entire existence revolved around the mines, the catastrophic events would change things forever, and imbue in the women a relentless spirit to pursue justice, no matter what the cost.

Last month, Ms Benya, a sociology lecturer at UCT, was awarded the 2015 Ruth First Prize for her article “The Invisible Hands: Women in Marikana”. It’s a prestigious prize awarded annually for the best article published by an African author in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).

The award represents something of a culmination for the 32-year-old former Wits University student, at least in terms of her own research.

Still in close contact with the women on the mines, she believes there remains much more to do in respect of recognising their role in shaping the country’s economy.

“There are actually two topics here,” she told the Tatler at the Baxter Theatre this week. “My bigger project was research I conducted on sub-contracted workers. I wanted to make sense of Thabo Mbeki’s statement about South Africa having two economies, and started my Master’s research in 2007. I was asked if I knew about the women who worked underground in the mines. I wanted to find out more about them,” she said.

“I wanted to know how they coped with the challenges they faced. The method I decided on was participant observation, so I spoke to the mine managers and executives who were very generous in allowing me to get involved. I started a process of looking for a job, and training to work in the industry. I was living and working with men and women.”

While she slowly began to grasp some of the circumstances in which the mineworkers found themselves, there was still something she could not understand. Most of the women lived in small villages away from mines and would have to spend vast amounts of money on public transport to and from work, just to be able to take home an honest day’s pay.

“When I got to the end of my three months, this woman came up to me and said, ‘Bye , Asanda.’ I did not recognise her at all and asked who she was. She told me we had been working together for two weeks. That was what struck me: these women were so different on the surface to how they were underground. I wanted to know how someone could be so different. This is what I decided to focus my PhD on. I wanted to know how they made sense of themselves, as mothers and daughters, how they navigated their situations on the mines every day.”

It was while conducting this research that the first strikes at Marikana began.

“Marikana was 20km away from the mine I was working at, but every day people would go after work to support the mineworkers there. Everyone knew each other.”

After returning to the hostels after learning of the massacre, Ms Benya and her colleagues sat glued to their television sets awaiting the latest news.

“The following day there weren’t any of the usual streams of cars going to the mines. It was usually bustling, but not that day.

“The mood was incredibly sombre, and people were asking if a particular person had been seen. I talk about participation, but I was not one of them.”

At the end of the week, Ms Benya felt compelled to attend the memorial service for the victims at Marikana. She believed it was her duty as a South African.

“There was mostly women around. About 270 or 280 men had been arrested, so it was mostly women. But it was the women who were doing things, cooking food for family members, sending messages back to the Eastern Cape and reporting on police harassment. It was the women who kept Marikana in the national conscience.

“I wanted to know what these women had been doing in the weeks and months prior to the massacre. Where was the narrative of women in the media? It just wasn’t there. Why are women continually silenced in history?”

In an attempt to answer these burning questions, Ms Benya forged deep and long-lasting relationships with the women of Marikana, and quickly began to appreciate that from the time of waking to going to bed at night, their lives were inexorably linked to to endless, dangerous cycle of the mines.

“What people don’t realise is that if women withdraw their labour from the mines, these mines would collapse in a month. Targets are set for their husbands working on the mines, and everything these women do is to prepare their husbands to meet these targets.

“They make sure they are 100 percent ready for work, that their overalls are clean and they are well-fed. This is dangerous, physical work and if their men’s minds are not in the right place, they are a liability to everyone working underground because they might put others in danger. The women’s work is not remunerated, but it has a direct impact on how well a mine performs, and by extension, how the stock exchange performs.”

Unfortunately, Ms Benya believes that for many of these women, the pain has become worse since the massacre.

“They still don’t have water and basic services. There is something very crazy about this situation. These labourers work 200m away from the mine and they have nothing, but all they see is the wealth being taken away on trains to other places. People are acutely aware of this.”

However, she believes that in spite of their tragic circumstances, there is a feeling that the Marikana Massacre will not be in vain.

“These women are going to fight on,” she said.