The incident known as the Marikana massacre of 2012 brought the world’s attention to the arduous lives of South African mineworkers. But a group that is continuously overlooked is the women of Marikana, and how many of them have had to sell their bodies to survive.
It is a common misconception that mining is a man’s world. In the mainstream media, South African mining evokes an image of black men in helmets and overalls, knocking a hammer against a wall in the dark underground. What the pictures never show are the women impacted by the mining industry, both above, and below ground.
Marikana is a small town along the so called Platinum Belt in the North West province. The town was non existent to the world before 44 people were killed when police opened fire on Lonmin mineworkers striking over wages. The town became a hub for exploration when platinum was ‘discovered’ by mining companies in the 1940’s. The new industry brought men flocking to the area, and Marikana, the town of new hope, came into being. But many women came too, mostly from rural areas around the country.
I spoke to women in Marikana, who said they had migrated to the town to find work. But jobs were far more scarce than they had imagined. Girls as young as 16, became prostitutes, mostly for migrant workers, and women who did get jobs in the mines, complain of having to sleep with their superiors to be promoted, or taken seriously.
Rose* came to the town from a tiny town called Bhapong, when she was 16 years old. Before she came, she had given birth to a little boy, who still lives back home with her parents. She is now 25 years old and tells her story outside a tavern, popular among both locals and migrant labourers and high income mine management.
“Most of the women here are prostitutes,” she says. “It’s bad. When you need money and you have to do that thing.”
Rose charges R70-100 per client. If the client stays all night, she charges R350. Unlike many of the other prostitutes who sleep on the streets, she pays R100 a week to rent a room in a house, where she feels safer while working.
Rose is HIV positive, but says she cannot get medication from the local clinic because she is “still strong”. Most of the time, she insists that clients use a condom. “But they pay more not to use a condom,” she says. “And I did it because I need the money.”
According to the World Health Organisation, sex workers in Sub Saharan Africa have the highest HIV rate within the global industry, at 36.9%.
Because of Rose’s skinny figure, most of her clients are white men, mostly at management level or above, who come from out of town to work at the mine. “White men are not my choice, it just happens, they like slender girls.” She says that the women with fuller figures, or “booties” as she calls it, have mostly black migrant labourers as clients. “They live in the hostels,” says. “Their wives are back home and they say they can’t sleep alone.”
At the end of every week, Rose goes straight to the town’s largest store, the Shoprite, to transfer money back home to her mother, who works on a flower farm, and her father, who works at a petrol garage.
“Sometimes you are tired and you just want money,” she says. “Sometime you just wanna sleep alone. You can’t do this job everyday. But I need money so I can’t sleep alone.”
According to Asanda Benya, a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, there are a number of reasons why migrant women struggle to find jobs.
“Jobs are first given to local residents, who are defined along tribal lines,” she says. “in this case it’s the Bafokeng or Bakgatla tribes. Also, these women don’t speak the local language, Tswana.”
Research has shown that the speedy emergence of prostitution in mining communities is not unique to Marikana. Internationally, the same has been seen in Mozambique, where gas companies have recently entered the northern areas of the country on a large scale, as well as in many mining towns in the Global South. In both these instances, the majority of clients are migrant workers.
Benya says, “The geography of mines and how it relied and continues to rely on migrant workers, and the history of South Africa which involved the migration of only one partner, has contributed to the rise of prostitution.”
She adds that, “Mine masculinity has also been defined along the lines of sexuality which, to some degree, is about multiple sex partners.”
But in towns in the north West like Marikana, prostitution does not only happen above ground. In early 2012, mineworker Pinky Mosiane was killed in the shaft of a mine in Rustenburg, near Marikana. She was found lying in a pool of blood, and may have been raped, judging from the used condom lying next to her. She had been in the shaft with 13 men.
This was the first time that any attention was paid to the plight of women miners working underground. These women are subjected to sexual harassment everyday, and are not noticed by the media.
In Marikana, I spoke to women working at Lonmin, the platinum mine at the centre of the massacre saga, who had taken this job out of desperation.
Because many mining companies either do not meet the 10% quota of women employees required by the South African Mining Charter, or stick to the minimum, there are often very few women on a shift with dozens of men.
Sue Vey, spokesperson for Lonmin, admitted that the company has not met the 10% quota, but is planning “to achieve this milestone”. 5.2% of their female employees work underground.
Anne* has been working underground for 3 years. With her gold painted nails and not a hair out of place, it is hard to imagine her labouring in men’s overalls, covered in black dust. Seated at the table in her one roomed house, she explains the difficulties that women face underground.
From the time a shift ends, women and men have to wait in a waiting area for 3 hours before being lifted up to the surface, and she says that this is the time when women are most at risk. She says that there have been days where there have been 5 women on a shift of 70, in the waiting area.
Vey says that the mine gives no consideration to the ratio of men to women allocated to a shift. “Women are appointed to their roles when they meet the academic, functional and physical requirements of the role.”
But this system appears to put women at risk of sexual abuse .
“Eish, how many women were raped underground?” Anne asks rhetorically, shaking her head. She says that if a woman is raped, she will not report it to an authority figure for fear of losing her job.
There are only two toilets in the section,” says Anne. One for men and one for women. For 70 workers. But it’s so far to walk and it’s dark dark dark. Even if you scream no one is going to hear you.”
Vey says that there have been no reported cases of rape at the company, and that it has sexual harassment policies and procedures and keep their employees informed on what to do in such a situation through extensive communication campaigns.
Beyond the issue of rape, women say they have to sell their bodies to climb the ranks, or to have their complaints taken seriously.
“If you want something at work, you have to love the supervisor or “chibaas” (chief boss) or the “kaptein” (captain),” says Anne. “It’s hard to get a promotion, because guys take advantage, they just say ‘love me’.”
Alternatively, she would be expected to pay a bribe, also known as a “chocho”, which can go up to R5000, to her captain. She says that she cannot talk to the staff in the human resources department as “they are all men”.
In this case, Vey says that the company has “human resources staff deployed across the business who are trained to assist employees with social and workplace issues.” They also have an anonymous tip-off line. The company is in the process of putting in structures for a Women in Mining programme.
Doret Botha is a researcher at the African Institute for Disaster Studies at the University of the North West. She has done extensive research on women workers in the mining environment. She says that what she has found from her research, is that, “Sexual harassment occurs in every kind of work setting, but some settings are more prone to sexual harassment than others. A strong predictor of sexual harassment is a work setting with a high male-female ratio, such as the mining industry.”
She says that there are still women who do not know their rights, and who are afraid of reporting sexual harassment attempts or incidents.
“They are afraid of losing their jobs,” says Botha, “and they don’t want to put their male co-workers in a “bad” position . Also, they don’t find it easy to lodge complaints with male supervisors.”
Even considering all the risks involved, the high unemployment rate for women in Marikana means that a job in the mines is something to aspire to.
Anne says that “women have no choice but to do this work”. “I can’t depend on my boyfriend for everything. He can’t buy everything that I need. And a boyfriend is just a boyfriend. He can change. You can only trust you.”
“Life is difficult,” she adds, moving her hands with emphasis. “Who can help you? I don’t know. There is no one to tell about my problems. And I can’t trust anyone, you never know who is good and who is wrong.”
*An abbreviated version of this article was published by Al Jazeera earlier this year.