By Debra Matabvu
While a number of young men left for neighbouring countries to join the liberation struggle in the 1970s, other young lads made the decision to trek south.
Attracted by the allure of gleaming yellow nuggets of the South African gold mines, multitudes left the country with the sole wish of breaking poverty’s leash that had ravaged and haunted their families for generations.
The army trooping down south soon found employment in the booming gold mines and were soon conscripted by the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (Wenela) – the biggest umbrella body of gold mine labourers at the time.
As the word could not roll off the tongue easily, especially for locals, it soon became bastardised into a new nomenclature – Wenera – which loosely came to define South Africa.
For men like Handison Makuvise, a fortune-seeking pilgrim who was 18-years-old at the time, they quickly realised that although “Egoli” (the place of gold) glittered like gold, shone like gold, life in the mines was anything but golden.
The gold mines were literally death traps.
“Imagine, being in a working space where danger continuously hangs above your head; working in a place where your first monthly pay cheque of the year is deducted to cover your coffin and funeral expenses, in case the earth collapses while you are on your daily shift,” the 66-year-old told The Sunday Mail last week.
“Those lucky to be alive are left with medical problems and emotional scars for the rest of their lives.
“This is the kind of place that I worked for five years, and life was anything but rosy.”
When Makuvise and several young men left the country, they thought they had escaped the clutches of a very evil system, little did they know that they were actually falling into the hands of an even more thoroughly evil one.
Gold discovery in Witwatersrand, South Africa, in the 19th Century led to a gold rush, which made the Southern African country the world’s top producer of the metal at the time.
But the mines needed cheap labour for the back-breaking and hazardous jobs in the mines.
The subsequent crusade to recruit labourers, which was often sugar-coated by promises of instant riches, sucked in desperate workers from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia.
“I left Zimbabwe in 1976 and came back in 1981 after Independence. There were not many opportunities for black people in Rhodesia,” Makuvise further explained.
“When I heard about South African mines that were recruiting young men from Zimbabwe, I immediately took the opportunity. It was a better alternative compared to the economic oppression that we were under.
“They had an office in Msasa Park, and the day we left, we were taken to the airport where we flew to South Africa.
“I was excited and nervous at the same time, I had never been in an airplane before.”
However, life took a turn for the worst the moment they landed on South African soil.
The mines needed strong and healthy men, which meant the recruits were put through gruelling workouts before being assigned.
“The week started off with intense training, which was very painful,” he added.
“The training included physical training, which mostly determined the ones who would work in the mines, and also we were taught how to speak other foreign languages, especially Afrikaans.
“However, what was humiliating was the insistence that we wear short dresses instead of shorts, which did not go down with most men. However, there was nothing we could do.
“I was later sent to Elseburg Gold Mine, which later merged with Randfontein Gold Mines,” he said.
Life in the compounds
During off days, one found it difficult to take a break in the cramped compounds that housed the labourers, said Makuvise.
Life in the compounds was definitely different from the community and village life that most knew and were used to.
“We were placed in compounds which had a hostel-like set up. There was no privacy at all,” he said shaking his head illustratively.
“In addition, it was scary and risky being a foreigner in such a place.
“The compound had many nationalities, from different cultural and religious background, thus there was a lot animosity amongst the workers.”
Clashes between foreigners and locals or among foreigners would often break up, resulting in fatalities.
“I remember a day when we came from work and found a Zimbabwean man from Chirumanzu area being attacked by some South Africans.
“He was beaten up so badly that he was later transferred from the mine as he could not work anymore,” he recounted.
Weird enough, most foreigners, he said, found security in the mines.
Makuvise opines that the mining companies deliberately created a set up that encouraged mistrust and conflict among blacks in order to distract them from ganging up against an exploitative system.
“We were given food that was so substandard and only meant to sustain the body. I think it is one of the reason that caused my teeth to rot,” he said showing his gapped teeth.
“We were slaves in that place.
“Many Zimbabwean men would opt for the foreign women and mistresses to help them steam off.
“However, some men ended being killed by rival suitors, while others opted to marry the local women and forget about families in Zimbabwe.
“Many families were destroyed because of this kind of set up.”
But while living conditions were bad, working conditions were worse.
There was always a possibility of the mines giving in at any time.
“Of course we were given protective clothing, but at times because our superiors wanted to surpass targets, we would be forced to work in areas that were risky,” he said.
“We would work in areas that were clearly not safe but because you could not say no to your boss, you would proceed to work in the area.
“We were given about R250 per month (equivalent to R1131 in 2019) and the first monthly pay of the year was used to purchase your coffin and (for) burial arrangements. In the event that you died in the mine, they would be able to send your body back home.
“A lot of men were crushed by falling rocks in the mines and perished in these mines.
“Some have their bones still lying in some mines shafts across South Africa.”
Besides the earth in the mines being unstable, there were a number of men who contracted Tuberculosis (TB) and siliceous because of the silica dust.
Although Makuvise did not contract TB or any lung disease, he contends that explosives that were used to blast underground rocks affected his eardrums.
David Shumba (66) of Zvishavane was not so lucky.
He contracted asthma and has breathing problems because of exposure to dust in the mines.
“I was young and ambitious when I left for South Africa,” he told this publication in a telephone interview last week.
“The work was very risky and dangerous; however, we had no choice, we had to work for our families.
“When I came back two years later in 1978, I had contracted asthma, which I am still battling with to this day.”
The duo – Makuvise and Shumba – believe they should be paid for the years they worked in South Africa as they were not given any benefits or compensation.
“Compared to our South African counterparts, we did not get anything. I understand our South African counterparts were given their pensions as well as benefits, but we did not get anything. We were cheap labour to them and we hope they consider us,” Shumba added.
And his wish might soon come true.
Six companies – African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo-American SA, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony, Sibanye-Stillwater – have reached a conditional settlement to pay compensation to eligible former Wenela mine workers, including dependants of those who have passed away.
Some beneficiaries could get up to R500 000 (about US$35 000) each. Sunday Mail