For more than a century, South Africa has been associated with mineral wealth, both in diversity and abundance. The demand for gold, diamonds, coal and platinum has gone from strength to strength, often shifting in accordance with the political economy and the availability of foreign markets. It has helped shape the landscape, as we know it today. Mineral exploitation by means of cheap and disposable labour has brought about national economic growth, making the mining industry the largest industrial sector in South Africa. Although South Africa is no longer the leading global exporter of gold, it is still recognised globally for its abundance and variety of mineral resources, which account for a significant proportion of world production and reserves.
Originally drawn to the environmental implications and historical and current social aspects of the gold mining industry around Johannesburg. It became clear as the project progressed that my subjects did not always directly reflect the legacy of mining-based pollution; rather, the concept of ‘the mine’ became a thread that helped me frame my work. I was originally drawn to the way in which mining had revealed the impact of its legacy on the environment, but my experiences soon revealed something deeper.
The potential for expanding this project soon revealed itself – beyond the peripheries of the city, into the small towns and rural communities surrounding areas of both abandoned and ongoing mineral activity. As I continued to explore the topic further, it was evident that ‘the mine’, irrespective of the particular minerals extracted, is central in understanding societal change across the country. Entering these spaces with little pre-existing knowledge allowed me to explore these enormous socio-economic cleavages and continuities through engaging with those who were most affected – who were, generally, the most marginalised. This enabled me to channel my conception of ‘the mine’ into visual representations that gave agency to these forgotten communities. ‘The mine’ provides a framework for portraying the seemingly unrelated stories of my human subjects in relation to their environment. The countless stories of personal suffering are brought to the surface and the legacy of ‘the mine’ is revealed.
The ‘legacy’ of mining is apparent in many ways – through land rendered unfit for alternative land uses such as ecotourism and agriculture, through public health crises within local communities unequipped to cope with the burden of air, land and water pollution, and through the disruptive influence of historical labour exploitation impacting on family structures and cultural positioning. Thus, unveiling these stories, through investigative fieldwork across the country, allowed me to delve deeper into the effects of ‘the mine’ on the profoundly polluted landscapes that are constantly negotiated by the local communities.
I set out to build a visual narrative that provides agency to those whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by mining processes and the long-term environmental ramifications, to expose the far-reaching neglect by the successive governments and corporate bodies that have driven the mining industry, to explore how people have coped within their circumstances, and to sensitise a public saturated with the idea of ‘climate change’ by focusing on the local problems that we can actually see. The objective was thus to travel the length and breadth of the land to reveal through the lens the forgotten communities that the mining industry has left behind.
This project not only captures isolated moments of the lives of ordinary people affected by the legacy of mining but also challenges the ideological portrayal of ‘the mine’ as a symbol of progress, prosperity and wealth. My subjects thus become symbols of the struggle for environmental and social justice in the country. By congregating a disparate network of people and places, I hope to provide a space for them to be heard and for the magnitude of the damage to be felt.
It became more evident as the project evolved that it resonates universally and can be used to showcase issues that we are all familiar with, irrespective of where we live: issues of greed, inequality and environmental degradation.
Economic growth is taking place in South Africa yet the extreme discrepancies between wealth and poverty are still visible. With money to be made and the recent creation of several mining companies under the Black Economic Empowerment programme, political and economic lines are continually being blurred as individuals with close ties to government benefit from the mining industry, leaving in their wake very little for the majority of society to benefit from. The environmental and social impacts of mining bring with them major risks. Benefits are not always equitably shared, and local communities closest to the source of the mineral development can suffer the most. Mines do provide jobs in economically marginal areas but the opportunities are limited. Communities that come to depend on mining to sustain their economies are especially vulnerable to negative social impacts when the mine closes.
Even though a project of this nature is far-reaching and covers a large expanse of the South African landscape, it has been tied together through microcosms of visual narration of untold stories.
Exploring the consequences of mining on South Africa’s land and people, I am unsettled by what lies ahead. The need for economic growth cannot be ignored but neither can the sustainability of the earth and water for generations to come. Exploitation, corruption and greed threaten the land, the very thread that connects all South Africans. Once a symbol of wealth and a formidable force in the development of South Africa, the mine today reveals the scars of neglect and decay and as such poses an irreversible threat to our society.
Ultimately I hope that this body of work ignites discussion about how as a society we need to stand together in bringing about a broader understanding of our shared resources. We need to acknowledge that the environment is as fragile as the people who live on the land. Growth and development are prerequisites for economic stability, yet we must never forget the historical context of how we got here and how we should move forward into a balanced and equal future.