Over the past three years, photographer Dean Hutton has chronicled parts of the above-ground lives of Zama Zamas, documenting the fractured nature of their work and their nominal family lives. Her style has moved away from a reportage style to make work that is more personal. This ongoing project into the lives of the Zama Zamas considers their immersion underground as illegal miners and their inability to access signifiers of time passing, such as seasons, the movement of the sun, as a form of suppression against their basic human rights. The work reveals the psychic toll on the bodies of the Zama Zamas and broaches the question, what happens to the body, when the body is held in suspended animation?
In South Africa, illegal miners are known as “Zama Zamas” (directly translates to ‘the ones who try and try’ or colloquially, ’hustlers’ in isiZulu.) They typically work in existing mine shafts that have been abandoned or closed by large mining houses.
Zama Zamas’ modus operandi is to gain illegal access to these shafts either through force – by breaking and entering through security perimeters – or bribery. In either case, it is increasingly difficult and expensive to get underground. Therefore, once the Zama Zamas have entered a mine shaft they must stay underground for months at a time, invisible citizens of an almost surreal, subterranean state. The repetitive nature of their labour insists that their persistent presence underground is a feat of endurance.
Over the past three years, I have chronicled parts of the above-ground lives of these Zama Zamas, documenting the fractured nature of their work and their nominal family lives. My approach has moved away from a reportage style to make work that is more personal. This ongoing project into the lives of the Zama Zamas considers their inability to access signifiers of time passing, such as seasons, the movement of the sun, as a form of suppression against their basic human rights. My work reveals the psychic toll on the bodies of the Zama Zamas and broaches the question, what happens to the body, when the body is held in suspended animation? The use of GIFs in my Zama Zama series is a means of capturing memory, both static and moving, suspended between photography and video.
What people are quick to forget about Zama Zamas is that they are the most vulnerable social group struggling to make a living in one of the most mineral rich countries in the world, in Johannesburg, a city aptly known as “eGoli,” or “City of Gold” in Zulu. The heart of South Africa’s economy, Johannesburg, is built on a long history of mining gold and precious metals, a ruthless pursuit that began in the 1800s with the discovery of gold in the frontier town known as the Witwatersrand. Ever since, mining in South Africa remains synonymous with cheap, migrant labour, a ready-made supply of men and women who suffer endless days of back-breaking, lung polluting work for less than a living wage. It is not surprising then that twenty years after the helm of Democracy and in the face of sporadic profit and a drop in gold prices, mine owners now see fit to portray this group as nothing more than “shrewd criminals” out to take for themselves what belongs to “The Man”.
The same Randlords, who squashed the miners’ strike in 1922 made it impossible for black workers to unionise. They introduced the colour bar to protect white jobs under Apartheid laws and funded the white nationalist government’s arms race. Eventually these lords of empire were persuaded to negotiate a peaceful transition to a black-led government with the ultimatum that the same brutal standards of cheap black labour would continue to be used to ensure perpetual profitability. Labour unions demanding increased wages and better working condition led to the Randlords abandoning mines already facing collapse. Today organised crime syndicates have taken over these abandoned sites of the former glory of South Africa’s sovereign gold rush; syndicates that promise a fairer cut than the regulated industry .
And so history comes to repeat itself. The callous cycle of lives who now burgle their way into these mines in a desperate attempt to dig out a living at all cost. For the most part these lives are not legitimised in the eyes of the incumbent ANC-led government. They come from rural pockets of the country where corrupt municipalities have delivered nothing more than spiralling unemployment since 1994. They come from even further afield contending with weeklong treks from Zimbabwe or Mozambique across the Kruger National Park only to have to outmanoeuvre the quiet threat of xenophobic aggression in the townships and inner cities of post-democratic South Africa. Upon arrival at the abandoned mines these desperate prospectors will begin a life entrapped by gang violence, robbery rock falls and subterranean darkness
In the country’s mainstream newspapers, now and then, we will read about 200 men trapped below ground in a shaft belonging to a mine company now partly owned by a businessman with family ties to the president. We will read about how the government now plans to block up entrances to abandoned mines, compel owners to heighten security and increase convictions for illegal mining. We will read about men dying underground and men too scared to come up from the mines because they will be arrested, encounter gang violence and police action.
Last year I met a former Zama Zama. He showed me pictures, on his old-school Nokia phone, of a time he was underground for six months. He said after that he was convinced he would die if he ever went underground again. The next pictures are of his son. He wants to be there for his child as he grows up. So now he helps organise supplies for other Zama Zamas, those who are unafraid of spending long stretches of time working and living underground.
My work reflects the importance of cell phones and mobile technology for the sharing of info and providing a temporary archive for capturing images, as well a sharing and containing them. I utilise social media as a key component of my methodology, encouraging a broader engagement with my work, where my images can be commented upon and accessed outside of the white cube.
This ongoing project highlights elements of the Zama Zama story, which neither the mining houses nor the government are comfortable talking about: cycles of poverty, crime and death which keep these mens’ lives in the shadows… in the tunnels.
Miners lose their liberty, miners lose their lives. And still for many the life of the Zama Zama is for life.