The special hell of Marikana's mining women

21 Aug 2016 - 11:00

Poignantly capturing the essence of the average young black South African woman’s experience, African-American scholar Teresa Barnes once wrote that violence against black women is “not an event; it is like water in which they are forced to swim ”.

Admittedly, in South Africa, violence is a continuous feature across the landscape, impacting men and women alike. The four-year anniversary of the Marikana massacre this month — the shocking spectacle of police brutality at the Lonmin platinum mine that revealed to the world how deep the fissures of inequality in South Africa are —brings this home. Yet, as we take stock of the racial and economic dynamics laid bare by this tragedy, a new report released by Médecins Sans Frontières alerts us to the ever present crisis of violence against women in marginalised mining communities such as Rustenburg, where Marikana is located.

The report, “Untreated Violence: The need for patient-centred care for survivors of sexual violence in the platinum mining belt”, details the findings of a 2015 survey in the municipality. It found that one in four women who took part had been raped in their lifetime, and half were survivors of some form of sexual violence or intimate partner violence. Statistics such as these are not atypical but rather reflective of the alarming rate of gender violence in the country. However, there are distinctive elements in mining areas that give rise to and exacerbate sexual violence and other forms of gender violence. 

Over 55% of the population of Rustenburg is male, given that men make up around 89% of the mining workforce. Women, too, come to the platinum belt seeking to better their lives — but as the mines tend to employ more men, there is a much higher rate of unemployment among women (59% among the study cohort), resulting in increased dependence on men for survival. Economic dependency places women in the Rustenburg area at greater risk of abuse by men.

In the MSF survey, of the women who had been raped, 40.5% reported having been raped by a non-partner only, 28.5% by a partner only, and the rest by their partners as well as by men with whom they were not involved. Eight percent of the women had been raped before the age of 15.

Woman miners also face precarious conditions. Although the 2002 Mining Charter urges that at least 10% of mining companies’ workforce must be female, and conditions have improved over the past two decades, the environment for those who work underground nonetheless remains relatively dangerous as these spaces are generally not designed to accommodate women’s safety and privacy needs.

Woman miners are frequently coerced to have sex with their male colleagues in exchange for assistance in performing difficult work tasks, or merely to get by financially. Women miners have been raped, assaulted and murdered while underground.

Just six months before the Marikana massacre in 2012, miner Pinky Mosiane was gang-raped while working in a shaft at Anglo American’s Khomanani mine in Rustenburg. It took 20 months for a sole suspect to be arrested and eventually prosecuted in this case. Another rape of a woman miner occurred in March last year at Anglo Platinum ’s Thembelani mine in Rustenburg.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand found that these were not exceptional cases; there was, it said, a “normalisation ” of rape of woman mineworkers by their male colleagues. Returning to Marikana in 2012, elements of gender discrimination were also at play during the strike and after the massacre. The miners refused to allow woman journalists such as Gia Nicolaides near their headquarters, warning that it was “men’s territory”. They threatened that they would do “unspeakable things” to any woman who went to the area in which a sangoma was preparing traditional medicine to protect them during the clashes.

Furthermore, conservative pastor Errol Naidoo preposterously blamed the massacre on “feminists ” and their “abortion- on- demand ” agenda, which, he argued, had created a “culture of death”. While Naidoo ’s bigoted condemnations can be easily discredited, his assertions and the protestations of the miners betray how even in the midst of such portentous upheaval, women ’s bodies can so easily be designated as the site of blame and aggression.

It has been 60 years since a deluge of women descended on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to express their rage at the extension of the pass laws to women. While we look back on these landmark protests during this Women ’s Month, and recall the lives so senselessly lost in the Marikana massacre, it is incumbent upon us to actively interrogate how women in mining communities are faring.

They are uniquely impacted by economic hardship, discrimination and violence, and their plight shows that the journey towards gender equality is still far from complete.