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Community, Labour and Social Life

Migrants and the Politics of Presence on the South African Platinum Mining Belt

Les migrants et la politique de la présence dans la ceinture minière du platine en Afrique du Sud
Migrantes y la política de presencia en el cinturón minero sudafricano del platino
Melusi Nkomo


The platinum mining regions of South Africa’s North West province attract numerous individuals from far and wide in search of mining jobs and other opportunities directly or indirectly related to the mines. Since the late 1990s many newcomers to the region have established informal settlements close to mining operations and nearby urban areas. Significant numbers of IsiXhosa-speaking migrants, primarily from the south-east of the country, reside in these settlements. This chapter examines particular social and cultural practices to argue that such mine-periphery settlements are significant sites for consequential social and political organisation and action. The chapter proposes that such politics, which can be termed the ‘politics of presence’, permits visible and audible claim-making and demands by the residents vis-à-vis the state and mining capital. Ordinary strategies for constructing and organising life entrench and expand their political presence, actions, and solidarity in a region that is, generally speaking, hostile to their presence. Instead of confronting, pathologising and marginalising the sociopolitical organisation and practices of informal settlement residence, policymakers would do well to view the political space and structures created in informal settlements as potentially fruitful for progressive political communication and deliberations aimed at improving the lives of poor people over the long term.

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1. Introduction

1During the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century, the global commodities boom fuelled an enormous expansion of platinum mining in South Africa’s North West and Limpopo provinces. In these platinum-rich provinces, mining companies such as Anglo-American Platinum, Lonmin plc and Impala Platinum engaged in profitable ventures, resulting in increased commercial activity and urban expansion in the surrounding areas. Rustenburg, Brits, Phokeng, Marikana and other cities provided many people with opportunities and ‘dreams’ for development, employment, entrepreneurship and escape from poverty (Rajak, 2012). From across South Africa and beyond its borders, many thronged to the region in search of mine jobs and other livelihood opportunities that are directly or indirectly related to the mining economy.

2However, in spite of the image of a booming industry, the mines were able neither to absorb the overwhelming numbers of job seekers nor to satisfy the deep desire for development among local communities. Those able to secure mine jobs survived on insufficient salaries, a situation that among other things provoked the Marikana strikes and violence of 2012–13 (of which more later). Many others remained unemployed, but some entered the informal economy—selling liquor in unlicensed establishments, running hair salons, peddling drugs and prostitution and pursuing other, undefined income-generating activities. Or, as described by Joseph Mujere, they engaged in ‘practices of waiting’ for the various kinds of life opportunities, such as jobs, public services, development, etc., which they hoped could come with mining (Mujere, 2020; Rajak, 2016; 2012). This chapter argues that significant everyday and mundane activities, social relations and practices build into the conditions of political life and struggles of the many who were drawn towards the mining boom’s many promises, but instead survive mostly on its edges. They find themselves on the margins, predominantly in the sprawling informal settlements dotted across the so-called platinum belt. The image of informal settlements right on the doorsteps of large-scale mining operations may evoke the underbelly of extractive activities, primitive accumulation, land dispossession, displacement, disruption of social arrangements and inequalities among local communities, as described by Capps and Mnwana (2015a; 2015b). However, these informal settlements on the edges of the mines, occupied by migrants and other poor, also constitute significant sites for active social and political organisation and actions. People who find themselves building a social world at the edge engage in what anthropologist Anne-Marie Makhulu (2015, xv) calls a ‘politics of presence’, which allows for visible and audible claim-making vis-à-vis the state and mining capital (see also, Bayat, 2007 and 2013). With such a politics, people grapple with the complexities of lived life, as Makhulu (2015, xv) suggests, by engaging in ordinary strategies of building and organising life, everyday struggles to survive, illegal settlement, protest, etc. while being able to ‘make their presence felt, exercise leverage and make demands’ (Li, 2017, 1253). As this chapter emphasises, the vibrant public politics of poor people on the platinum belt cannot be fully understood without interrogating the mundane, intimate and personal dispositions and actions of the actors (Hanisch, 1970; Enloe, 2011). A derivative argument, which is important to mention but will not be expanded upon in the present contribution to this thematic volume, is that the margins of the mining economy represent conduits of social reproduction and social mobility that are not directly organised by capital, but from which capital benefits immensely. Marginality, therefore, does not entail political insignificance, or dejected apathy on a mining frontier.

  • 1 On 16 August 2012, a gathering of mine workers and other community members—who were vocalising wage (...)

3The chapter’s insights are based on my ethnographic study in Marikana town in South Africa’s North West province. I stayed in the informal settlements of Big House and eNkanini (the latter is sometimes called Wonderkop) for 14 months that were interspersed between 2014 and 2016. A number of my interlocutors, on whom I will focus in this paper, were isiXhosa-speaking male migrants who came to the area mostly from the rural regions of Eastern Cape province. I undertook fieldwork in the aftermath of the Marikana miners’ strikes and crisis, which lasted from 2012 to 2013.1 I conversed and interacted with, but also observed the life of, the town’s people, especially those residing in informal settlements and surrounding poor communities. While I focus on men in this paper, my fieldwork in general was not limited to the stories of full-time male employees of the mines, but included the perceptions of casual, informal and unemployed individuals who were both female and male. Many of those I spoke with had hopes of one day getting a full-time mining job.

4This chapter adds to the academic and policy debates on local-level politics in mining regions—that is, the politics of people living in areas affected by large-scale resource extraction (Filer and Le Meur, 2017, 24). Mining sites such as the one I depict are those social spaces, we are told, where capitalism ‘“hits the ground” and [is shaped, or] shapes conditions of everyday life’ (Mezzadra and Neilson, 2019, 22; also, Tsing, 2005). In this relation, the academic argument exposes ‘zones of noncommodification’, in this case the grey zones of the sociocultural and political, on which mining capitalism ‘depends for its very existence’ (Fraser, 2017, 152) by its extraction and exploitation of labour, and life itself, while contributing very little to its reproduction. Such zones, as Lahiri-Dutt (2016, 204–13) has described in the context of coal mining in India, may also exhibit the intermingling of the formal and informal, resulting in ‘diverse worlds’ that are flexibly organised by transactions, labour and enterprise. To a great extent, this chapter augments the growing body of social science analyses of post-apartheid/postcolonial (that is, post-1994) mining by putting the everyday and quotidian social and political practices on the fringes of a mining economy under an ethnographic microscope.

5In the last two decades, much of the research on South Africa’s mining explored the changing political economies, social structures and political sociologies of labour, especially on the platinum mining belt (Bowman, 2016; 2018; Benya, 2016; 2017; Capps, 2010; 2015; Mnwana and Bowman, 2022; Forrest, 2015; Sinwell and Mbatha, 2016). Emphasis has been on how platinum mining impacts the dynamics of community formation, contentious inter-intra-community politics, and relations between communities, corporations, local government and the state, as well as forms of mine labour organisation and struggles. It is often agreed that ‘the new mining’ has been accompanied by a ‘complex pattern of [both] continuity and change in the dynamics and geographies of the old migrant labour system’ (Capps, 2015, 501; Bezuidenhout and Buhlungu, 2015; Stewart, 2015). Scholars also consider how the different land ownership statuses and patterns of authority in mining-affected areas facilitate conflict over control of land and mineral benefits (Bowman, 2016; Capps and Mnwana, 2015a; 2015b; Mnwana and Bowman, 2022). These conflicts manifest themselves in local social struggles, and are usually ‘fought through claims to exclusive group identities and conflicting notions of belonging’, which leads Mnwana to conclude that ‘[t]he politics and meanings of belonging and citizenship have hence become central to attempts to determine who benefits from the fruits of platinum mining and who doesn’t’ (Mnwana, 2015, 159). In the present chapter, I acknowledge the extensiveness and significance of work that has been done on South Africa’s platinum belt society and local-level politics; however, and taking some inspiration from studies done elsewhere (see Lahiri-Dutt, 2016; Filer and Le Meur, 2017), I aim at gnawing underneath the totality of social structural analysis, and the oft-presented image institutional by exposing the distinct forms of everyday cultural practices, social processes, and other engagements undertaken by migrants and their communities without the direct organisation of capital, but definitely not without its exploitation. The evidence I bring forth, first, compliments the analyses of overarching power and structural relations between communities, governance institutions (state, chieftaincies and municipalities), labour and capital, but also invites different political actors to move beyond pathologising life in informal settlements and take seriously the public space and channels of political communication, deliberations, relations and discourses that are created in such places, which are often based on heterogenous practices of daily life.

2. Background and Context: The Roots of Migrants’ Marginalisation Around South Africa’s Platinum Mines

6In Marikana and across the mining regions of the North West province, the description, designation and categorisation of isiXhosa-speaking mine workers and other migrants as social actors and groups and the roles they adopt can best be addressed by juxtaposing them against other actors such as the local communities, institutions and mining companies with whom they interact on a daily basis. At an institutional level they frequently interact with mining corporations, state institutions such as the police, and local government structures such the Bojanala Platinum District Municipality. The local communities are mostly seTswana-speaking populations who are represented by the Bapo-Ba-Mogale traditional authority (sometimes referred to as a ‘chieftaincy’), bodies and groups of families purporting to be independent from the traditional authority. Many other people may claim to be ‘locals’, and affiliated to the area by virtue of speaking the seTswana, identifying with the culture of the region, acting and adopting certain roles that adhere them to local politics, and coming from other areas within North West province itself. From various actors there is a general resentment towards and marginalisation of migrants and their communities, particularly those residing in informal settlements. Locals often forward claims to indigeneity, autochthony, property (land and housing claims) and mine jobs that they see as threatened by the presence of a huge number of predominantly male ‘outsiders’ from other cultures and areas of South Africa and beyond (see Mujere, 2015; and Mnwana, 2015). In Marikana, Asanda Benya (2015, 550) observed how this resentment manifests itself in sites of everyday public and social life such as community clinics, for example between migrant residents of eNkanini and the locals of Emzini formal settlement, where the majority of residents are seTswana-speaking; she writes:

The community clinic, meant to service all community members, has been absorbed into tribal politics that have led to migrant women sometimes being refused service [….] migrant women narrated stories of nurses and administrators who refused, ignored or turned them away for failing to respond to instructions given in the local language. To be serviced they have had to learn the local language, seTswana, or, when they can afford a taxi fare, seek help from clinics in other communities.

  • 2 Lucas Mangope was the president of a short-lived black ‘homeland’ government (1977–93) that was sit (...)

7I also observed seething discontent across the platinum belt, especially among unemployed and despondent local youth, who expressed their disaffection through protests, rioting and other kinds of demonstrations while demanding mine jobs and other perceived entitlements such as the prioritisation of locals in the allocation of those jobs (Capps and Mnwana, 2015b). Daily interactions with a huge number of male migrants provides further and ready fodder for tensions that may come out as ‘ethnic’ and a revival of an ‘insurrectionary brand of identity politics’ (Capps and Mnwana, 2015a, 617). This resentment, however, is not new to the post-apartheid period and already occurred during the apartheid-era ‘Bantustan’ government of Lucas Mangope from 1977 to 1993, when ‘a particularly virulent notion of “foreigners”’ was fanned against migrants in the North West’s regions in an attempt to incorporate various seTswana-speaking communities with ‘pan-Tswana nationalism’ (Capps and Mnwana, 2015b, 34).2 Non-Tswana mineworkers, especially isiXhosa-speaking men, were often arrested and deported if found loitering in villages (Manson and Benga, 2012; Capps and Mnwana, 2015b). The end of apartheid might have put a stop to the deportations, but social contacts with migrants on the edges of the mines took on new forms with the commencement of profitable platinum mining in the first decade of the 2000s.

8Capps (2010, 16) writes that a new, ‘increasingly assertive “tribal nationalism”’ among the various local chieftaincies and communities is continuously propped up by knowledge of platinum wealth and the promise of its redistribution (Capps, 2010, 16; Manson and Benga, 2012, 116). The promise of mining-led development, wealth redistribution and ‘empowerment’ among seTswana-speaking ‘ethno-communities’ has meant that locals are constantly rebranding themselves as a way of repositioning themselves in order to benefit from mining operations (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2009, 15; see, also, Rajak, 2016). To a large extent, the situation also means that relations vis-à-vis non-Tswana and other marginal, poor and migrant communities engender a ‘“segmentation” of citizenship or the “narrowing” of definitions of belonging’ around mining projects (Mnwana, 2015, 161). In Koczberski and Curry’s (2004, 367) study of migrant workers on palm oil plantations in Papua New Guinea (cited in Bainton, 2009, 24), similar ‘insider–outsider’ discourses also tend to promote and legitimise the socioeconomic and political power of the local community while homogenising the outsiders. The circumstances of resentment, exclusion and marginalisation with regard to residents of informal settlements therefore result in blanket but multiple forms of deprivation for most migrants in such settlements, the most obvious being deteriorating subsistence, infrastructurally poor residence, and general uncertainty of life.

9The preceding depiction of social relations on the platinum belt should not be taken as my denying interethnic instances of cooperation that happen at many different levels between individuals and many other actors with various backgrounds, not only between isiXhosa and seTswana speakers. Also, the divisions are by no means seamless. Most migrants speak fluent seTswana and the opposite is true for locals, who may speak isiXhosa and other Nguni languages, such as isiZulu, on top of English and Afrikaans. During and just after the Marikana strikes and crisis of 2012 for instance, the interests of most people in communities around the platinum belt seemed to converge, transcending linguistic and ethnic divisions as all and sundry came out in solidarity with the striking mineworkers (Naicker, 2017). While it is true that migrants and others exist in social cooperation beyond ethnolinguistic boundaries (e.g. during labour protests, sport events, political gatherings, etc.), what is undeniable is that everyday social contacts remain an important point where people come together, or become divided, around the platinum mines. A question then arises regarding how migrants position themselves socially and politically in order to wade through the deprived conditions of life and struggles. How do they perform, inscribe and claim a social and political presence on the platinum belt? The following ethnographic evidence points to heterogenous practices, whereby migrants progressively enhance their political and social presence, which they enact through the everyday building of sociocultural relations, networks and institutions. This politics, as Bayat (2007) argues about the Islamic world, is slowly ‘encroaching’ and persistent upon the constraints imposed upon its protagonists by institutions and the authorities.

3. Enacting Political Presence on the Platinum Belt

  • 3 I use pseudonyms for my interlocutors to protect their identities. I introduce Jeke, because (as wi (...)

10In the morning of June 21, 2015 at Big House informal settlement in Marikana, I joined a group of migrant men who basked and feasted at a yard on the banks of Sterkstroom, a creek running along the edge of the settlement. The men were my neighbours and acquaintances, whose invitations to many occasions and events I readily accepted during my fieldwork. In the small yard was an open fire on top of which was a large pot which burped and coughed out froth, lid tumbling from boiling meat. Jeke,3 an old-timer mine worker and neighbour explained to me that the reason for the occasion he planned was ‘welcoming our young men’ (‘ukwamkela abafana basekhaya’, or just ‘ukwamkela’), in his isiXhosa language. The welcome, he explained, was for some young men who had arrived the previous day from Eastern Cape. The young men were known to Jeke from his rural village of Cabane, some 20 kilometres south of the closest town, Mount Frere, also in the Eastern Cape. Not all the ‘young men’ looked so young to me, and neither were they all ‘new’ to the platinum belt in general. Jeke, regularly addressed as ‘utata’ (‘father’, or ‘old man’) by fellow residents and workmates alike, had been around the mines for as long as he could remember, and often gathered people of his own accord for beer-drinking occasions and settling small disputes between residents.

11On that day, Jeke was cooking at the yard of a close friend of his, a fellow mineworker I knew as Miya. The two met at the end of the 1990s when the latter arrived on the platinum belt as a young man to find work. Jeke himself came to the platinum mines earlier, at the end of the 1980s, after he left another mine that shut down on the gold reefs near the city of Johannesburg. Jeke decided to prepare the meat at Miya’s yard because there, he decided, it could be looked after while he attended to some other chores. Besides, he also considered that the goat’s loud bleating during slaughter might ‘invite the whole Big House’, many more hungry mouths than he had planned for. For that day, Miya’s place, at the edge of the informal settlement, was secluded from the public eye, and just ideal for a small-scale social occasion.

12A few other men joined the group later, and the gathering swelled to about 15 people. All of them, I later found out, were originally from various regions of the Eastern Cape. Two were known to Jeke from his rural village. Three joined because the two from the village invited them. It was the same for the other men who joined us later. A few knew the host from work, or like me from staying together at the Big House informal settlement. We were just ‘makhelwanes’ (‘neighbours/co-residents’). The informality of the occasion makes it difficult to generalise its structure to other social activities of a similar nature that may occur elsewhere. On this occasion, friends, acquaintances, neighbours, workmates, chosen by the host and others, spread the word among themselves.

13With the preceding vignette, I reiterate a trope in the anthropological literature about the reconstruction of social and kinship networks among mine workers who found themselves far from home on the mines of apartheid and colonial southern Africa (see Van Onselen, 1976; Harries, 1994; Dunbar Moodie and Ndatshe, 1994). The trope is still recognisable in contemporary studies, albeit with several modifications as the analysis below will reveal. Migrant mineworkers and their communities are discernible as social collectives on the platinum belt. Their inter- and intraethnic contacts, and adoption of different situational roles, engender social networks that become significant for everyday social and political relations and actions. The networks could be built from common rural origins, as among workmates, beer-drinking companions, among kin, and in various other daily engagements.

  • 4 One fundamental particularity would be ‘initiation’ into manhood, which involves circumcision, whic (...)

14In the informal settlements under consideration, there exists an elaborate affective community in which idioms of family, friendship and other terms of classificatory kinship are readily deployed to denote ethnic affinity and affiliation, sometimes genuine and consanguineal, but not uncommonly fictive (see also Harries 1990; 1994). Several other close social ties are built and social roles adopted on the platinum belt among co-workers, co-residents and other people with whom migrants interact regularly. Such ethnocultural affiliations, roles and connections sometimes obscure narrower loyalties to social and moral institutions at rural homes of origin, such as loyalties to a particular headman or chief (ibid., 1990). For many migrant men, being a ‘ndoda yom’Xhosa’ (‘Xhosa man’) is a general label of shared camaraderie and honour they are generally comfortable with. A significant number of them did sometimes identify themselves as belonging to a subgroup from the specific districts they came from, yet these particularities were frequently undercut by a broader rubric of isiXhosa speakers across the platinum belt.4 As an example, a man from the Gcaleka, an isiXhosa-speaking subgroup, would comfortably admit to being ‘a Xhosa’ (‘ndingu mXhosa’, they would say) and identify with the broader group of people coming from various Eastern Cape regions, even those who are not Gcaleka. Being a ‘mXhosa’ is therefore understood as emanating from an ethnolinguistic convergence, a shared province of origin, but crucially a sense of familiarity with certain general cultural ways and similar life circumstances both on the platinum belt and in their rural homes of origin.

Figure 1 A poster at Marikana calling members of an ‘umbutho’ from Bizana, Eastern Cape, to a Sunday morning meeting. Below the time and venue is written, ‘We succeed in numbers, fellows’.

Figure 1 A poster at Marikana calling members of an ‘umbutho’ from Bizana, Eastern Cape, to a Sunday morning meeting. Below the time and venue is written, ‘We succeed in numbers, fellows’.

Source: Author.

  • 5 The term ‘Umbutho’ is also used to denote ‘trade union’.

15The above observations resonate with Mahoney’s (2012, 139) study among ‘Zulus’ who migrated for work in the early twentieth century and found themselves concentrated in South Africa’s urban settlements, where people from different regions, chiefdoms, and districts assembled in a manner they might never have done in the countryside; as migrants, they adopted a broad Zulu belonging. Harries (1994, 39) similarly claims that far from their home, late nineteenth and early twentieth century Mozambiquan migrants forged ties in migrant communities for ‘assistance and comradeship’, and such communities were often wider than those of the chiefdom and clan from whence they came. Additionally, concepts of kinship became extended to include, within the classification of ‘brothers’ and ‘family parties’, men who were seen to share a common repertoire of values and traditions (ibid.). On the platinum belt today, people coming from vastly separated areas of the Eastern Cape, such as eNgcobo, Mount Fletcher, Flagstaff, Mthatha and so on, find themselves concentrating into social groups and residential patterns whose basis is wider than those at their rural homes. The basis for coming together can be language and culture, but goes further to include various mutual interests—job opportunities, political affiliation, religious affiliation and land occupation, for example. Male migrants may thus congregate in associations called ‘umbutho’ and gather to discuss and forward matters of converging interest.5 Although meetings of such congregations are sometimes publicised through posters (see figure 1), at other times they occur as regular sittings around beer, or a game of cards on easy Sunday afternoons, or more commonly after work, casual gathering in the small yards of the informal settlements. I did not have an opportunity to attend formally publicised umbutho meetings because invitations specifically included close compatriots from the same rural district, but the information I present here comes from similar gatherings (discussed in sections below) where people performed everyday interactional and behavioural repertoires. While the kind of politics practiced in these male groups could be understood in terms of Thompson’s (1971) moral politics, which involves circumscribing one’s own boundaries for collective action and ‘mutually “acceptable” elements within a system of political domination and economic appropriation’ (Dunbar Moodie, 1986, 2), it can also be understood as a politics of assertively digging into a particular political space. And thus as a politics of presence, with the intention of becoming visible and audible vis-à-vis dominant actors such as the state, local authorities and mining companies. It is not unusual that this politics finds some symbolic expression—for example, after a gathering such as the ones described above the migrants form a procession of singing and dancing through the streets. Much of the lyrics of the songs they sing (or sometimes poetry by an ‘imbongi’, or poet, among them) reveal the world of their political imagination and desires, and a readiness to act and achieve that world. ‘Ngcono sigoduke sizothul’mthwalo thina! Ngeke simele into yokudlala ‘manye madoda’ (‘Better we turn back [to our rural homes] and lay down our burdens! We can’t wait to be played by other men’), they would chant and march in public places, referring to what they see as not being rewarded fairly for their labour in the mines, or as being treated unfairly in the region to which they have come to work and build lives. In the following section I explore further examples of these political and cultural symbolisms.

4. ‘Khawuzithuthe khe!’ (‘Praise yourself!’): Knowing One Another on the Platinum Belt

  • 6 This was not an actual interview, but I got this structure from the many introductory greetings I o (...)
  • 7 During my fieldwork, spies supposedly emanated from the police, mining companies, local authorities (...)

16Upon meeting one another for the first time, and on top of regular niceties such as asking one another’s names, migrant men typically ask one another about particular clan names they call ‘iziduko, their specific chief’s name, and rural districts of origin (‘ekhaya’). The pleasantries around a beer drink could be conspicuously long. One might begin by saying, ‘Molweni, mna ndingu Ntobeko, ndingumzukulu ko Ngcwangule, esizwe samaMpondo, eNdindindi’ and go on praising themselves (‘Greetings, I’m Ntobeko, the grandson of Ngcwangule, who comes from Mpondo country, in Ndindindi district’).6 It is possible just to stop having mentioned one’s given names and where one comes from, but it is not rare that others may request more detail in a manner that sounds like asking ‘Why are you withholding other information?’ It is prudent, anyway, to be reticent about one’s identity and origin in a place like the platinum belt, where spies (‘impimpis’) are deeply despised and if caught are harshly dealt with.7 Indeed, at times people go further, requesting that an individual recite his clan praises during the introductions. ‘Khawuzithuthe sikuve mhlekazi, ungubani waphi? Ukuze sazane!’ (‘Praise yourself now sir; who exactly are you and from where? We want to hear you then know you!’) Sometimes an individual would confess their lack of knowledge of ritual and cultural decorum in the Xhosa clan praise tradition that other migrants, especially senior men, would proudly flaunt.

  • 8 As far as I know, my Ndebele-speaking people from Zimbabwe are Ngunis like isiZulu, isiSwati and is (...)

17A satisfactory introduction regularly invites heartfelt welcomes and nods of affirmation: ‘Aw! iza uzohlala apha mntase. Awusijoyine mfokaNgwcangule sisele, sincokole njengamaXhosa’ (‘Aw! Join us blood relative, son of Ngcwangule; sit here, drink and let us chat together as Xhosas’). Sometimes the clan names and praises could end up being used in day-to-day interactions instead of one’s given names. At Big House settlement, some of my neighbours referred to me as ‘Khumalo, Mntungwa,’ which I later learnt was a clan praise among the isiXhosa-speaking amaMfengu or amaHlubi subgroups from the Thembuland regions of Eastern Cape province, who also have the surname ‘Nkomo’.8 I gladly took up the honour. For an individual in a potentially alienating environment, Harries (1994, 6) once concluded, this naming honour provides a concept of ‘self’ and closely links them to the moral collective, thus locating them in multiple patterns of social relations and obligations.

18One’s deliberate furtiveness, as briefly hinted at above, could raise suspicion in the platinum belt environment, where people fear and despise spies. However, whatever way an individual is welcomed, being an isiXhosa speaker and opening up about one’s Eastern Cape origins might become a quick open sesame to getting involved in material, sociopolitical and moral relations that are important for most of the platinum belt’s migrant communities. Social interactions, therefore, do not end with merely occupying the same living space, or with the fact of coming from the same region of origin as others. The banalities of everyday life in informal settlements—accessing food, money, sex, dealing with health and illness, among other issues—have the potential to create networks, which in turn further entwine people into local spheres of political and/or social action. Such circumstances, I argue, exemplify the remaking political actions, social dependencies, and social dynamics and social forms through which individuals and collectives aspire for advancement in their lives.

5. Inscribing and Reinforcing the Politics of Presence

19Earlier in the morning of 21 June 2015 (the occasion that I introduced in earlier sections of this chapter), Jeke had knocked at my door to check on me (it had become a habit of his whenever I was around) and invited me to come along to his friend’s yard, where the ‘ukwamukela’ was taking place. We found the young men in hushed conversation that was abruptly broken by Jeke’s greeting, which he offered in a dramatic and commandeering tone. He removed a pot full of meat from the fire. After briefly explaining why he had decided to slaughter one of his animals, he invited everyone to partake in the fellowship. It was meant for ‘people from home’, he explained, ‘so that they won’t think we don’t have relatives in Marikana’. A plastic bowl was thus passed around first, for each to pick out a thin roasted strand. In the meanwhile, Jeke and Miya prepared the boiled meat, which was later spread on two wide wooden platters (they were, in fact, cleaned pieces of old doors). People sat around the platters of meat in two separate groups. Older men were around one and younger men around the other. The sitting arrangement was at the host’s insistence, to respect and show deference to one another (‘ntlonipha’), he explained. It was the same format at traditional ceremonies and other social gatherings I observed—such as the ‘ukukhulula izila’ (‘removing of mourning clothes/stop the mourning’, also ‘home cleansing ceremony’)—when people ate together on big occasions at migrants’ rural homesteads in the Eastern Cape. As part of respect and avoidance, called ukuntlonipha-custom, junior men and senior men may not eat from the same platter. The custom extends to the relations and contacts between men and women in the homestead; they too could not share food from the same dish.

20Hickel (2015, 76–78) shows that among other Nguni peoples, such as isiZulu-speaking populations, this circumspect generational separateness of ukutlonipha is a crucial part of traditional custom through which senior men maintain patriarchal ideologies and authority over their homesteads and juniors. In general, however, and with respect to migrant miners, it has been long recorded that this ‘principle of seniority’ is the basis on which social life among Nguni people is organised (Dunbar Moodie and Ndatshe, 1994, 129). ‘Without respect for elders the entire political and moral economy of traditional Bantu-speaking societies would unravel’, argues Dunbar Moodie and Ndatshe (1994). On the platinum belt, ukuntlonipha and general deference to one’s seniors is still one of a litany of important sociocultural practices that are constantly evoked in the remaking of a social reality and a world with meaning to its actors. Migrants acknowledge that their social world and its organisation is not entirely divorced from the reality of their rural homes from whence they came. As much as material realities of lived life on the platinum belt are invariably linked to those of the countryside, so too are the sociocultural and moral realities that complete that social world.

21On the day described here, senior migrant mine workers like Jeke and Miya carried themselves with the hubris of those in authority. It seemed to me a rather consciously performative authority for the most part, repetitively carried out, as if to inscribe a sense of obeisance and solidary into the psyches and on the bodies of their junior compatriots. Jeke did not eat much. No sooner had the eating started than he was wiping the meat’s fat off his hands onto grass tufts and his overalls, after a few seemingly light pecks at the meat. He had a few extra slivers for himself, which he casually chucked into his mouth before going back to the fire, where he was preparing the rest of the meat into biltong. Miya and the other senior men called out to the junior men, ‘heyi madoda thathani nantsiya inyama nitye’ (‘Hey gentlemen, there is meat, take and eat’), and they fell upon it with the lust of the truly hungry. All the while, the senior men ordered about the youngest of the guests with many unceasing small requests, for instance telling them to sharpen the cleaver and penknives on nearby rocks, or for someone to bring salt from Miya’s room.

  • 9 A ‘Ben 10’ in South African slang refers to a young man who makes immature decisions when it comes (...)

22In one instance, when a restless young fellow kept pacing up and down in front of the group, foraging for a paper to roll his tobacco, Jeke gave him more than a mild reproof: ‘Rha! hlala phantsi ndoda! Jonga mna nabanye abantu! Sibadala kuwe’, he barked, pausing in-between each phrase for emphasis (‘rha! man sit down and take note of other older people and me; we’re older than you’). Jeke was reacting to the slightest of infractions with regard to the kind of ideal social order and comportment that was being performed and remade during the small gathering. The young man’s infraction was, I suppose, one that could have passed without much thought or consequence, yet for the older men noticing such small ‘infractions’ is usually a technique via which to assert their attempts at lecturing juniors on a normative moral order. Some took the heed; some, maybe not. This time the reproved junior promptly replied, ‘ndiyaxolisa maxhego’ (‘apologies elders’) before recoiling, smarting from his bruised ego. For the most part, however, the gathering was good-humoured; we laughed and talked a lot. Jokes, for instance, could be aimed by the seniors at the juniors, teasing them about being ‘Ben 10s’,9 not out of disdain but to remind them how the temptation to behave with ‘childish’ perversity in certain situations should be restrained. Small feasts such as the one discussed here are ubiquitous on the platinum belt, and offer seemingly strenuous but also light moments that characterise much of migrants’ commitment to collective morality and political presence.

  • 10 ‘Equilibrium’ is used here in the sense suggested by Max Gluckman (1940, 28), to mean ‘the interdep (...)
  • 11 “Women of the mines” was often said derisively of female migrants, especially those who came of the (...)

23Indeed, tensions within the informal settlements are always close to the surface in the environs of the platinum belt, between generations, between genders, and with other social groups. Yet achieving an equilibrium seems more important than total disconnection between the social groups.10 The attempts to perform and (re)create a particular social order and reality, and navigate the uncertain existence of life on the platinum belt do not necessarily suggest an imaginary place of perfect and uncontaminated bliss and cooperation. Far from it. These, after all, are communities that have witnessed their fair share of immense violence of many dimensions, as exemplified by the Marikana crisis that started in 2012 and continued for most of 2013. So, given half a chance and without their seniors’ insistence, women and younger men may eschew hierarchies and authority. There were instances when I heard women and youths reminding older men that ‘Rustenburg [the platinum belt] is not in the rural homes’, and that people were there to make money above all else. They challenged attempts to establish patriarchal order and hierarchies. Nevertheless, senior men do not easily give up exerting pressure for normatively significant social relations and framework collective actions. They argue, as Jeke did, that the ‘rebellious young’, the ‘Ben 10s’ as they call them, and ‘women of the mines’11 need that ‘guidance’, or even reprimand in the form of being cut out of migrant social circles. People like Jeke were, therefore, reinforcing the same moral refrains that young people and women would probably hear back at home in rural Eastern Cape, from relatives, parents, and community.

24As a restatement, food and drink facilitate quasi-traditional and customary gatherings that for many migrants mean the beginning of long-term platinum belt ‘friendships’ (‘ubuhlobo’). Later, elsewhere on the platinum belt, such companions would be greeted in the form of groups of ‘drinking buddies’, called ‘amabandla’ (singular ‘ibandla’) among men. In addition to drinking, these men engage in a variety of other activities, such as gambling, playing sports, attending labour union meetings, and eating. For these migrants from Eastern Cape, new social relationships in North West province are usually built with others from their home region. However, mere acquaintances can grow in importance and become so close that they eventually regard each other as ‘kin’, even when they come from vastly diverse regions and family backgrounds in their home province. While it is preferable to have people of the same ethnic and regional background and even same village of origin in one’s social circle, the boundaries of relations are not always stringent if trust, mutuality, dependency and obligation are created with others. Such companions could be drawn from neighbours in the informal settlement, from workmates, fellow trade union comrades, or from elsewhere across the vastness of the platinum mining belt. While, ideally, social networks and relations have an ethnolinguistic and regional character that draws in people from the same region, the boundaries are never etched in stone, so that any other acceptable persons, including myself, can be accommodated.

25Migrant mineworkers’ social networks in southern Africa have long been considered important forms of moral relations and association and they often came in the form of ‘homeboys’ and ‘homegirls’ groups. A congregation formed by rural networks, neighbourly acquaintance, or ethnic camaraderie was always part of sociability among migrants in pre-1994 mining compounds (Gordon, 1977; Clegg, 1981; James, 1999; Dunbar Moodie and Ndatshe, 1994; Donham, 2011). Dunbar Moodie and Ndatshe (1994, 166) specifically observe among migrants of the past that male camaraderie and drinking were ‘indispensable to compound social life’ not least because of the informal networks and affinities they nurtured, but also because they extended into other realms of human sociality: dance parties, sex and its acquisition, moral exhortation, maintenance of order, and so on and so forth. On the platinum belt, while remaining crucial for interconnectedness social networks are constantly adjusted to suit the migrants’ contexts, desired outcomes, and the rapidly changing but marginal lives on a mining frontier (Kirsch, 2001).

“One doesn’t just wriggle out like a snake”: Bidding Farewell

26When a migrant is leaving the platinum belt to go to back to their ‘emakhaya’ (the rural ‘home’) in the Eastern Cape for good or for an extended period, this is sometimes taken as an opportunity to gather friends, neighbours and workmates together. Such an occasion may be called ‘ukuvalelisana’ (‘bidding each other farewell’). Again, invited guests would be regaled with stories, food, drinks, music, and not uncommon, ample amounts of cigarettes, tobacco and marijuana. Unlike ‘ukwamukela’ (the welcoming occasion described above), the ‘ukuvalelisana’ occasion could turn out to be an event at which people carouse and gorge themselves on food, depending on the depth of the host’s pockets. It turns into a festive shindig if an individual is leaving on a good note and for happy reasons, and with something to show for it—so, for example, retirement, or having received one of the voluntary severance packages that Lonmin was offering in 2013 and in early 2016. One is not, meanwhile, expected by one’s compatriots, friends, neighbours and other acquaintances to ‘sneak out’ as though one had survived all the years on the platinum belt alone. An interlocutor described such socially despised actions as the stealthy ‘wriggling away of a serpent’: ‘ukurhubuluza kwenyoka’, he said. The imagery of a wriggling serpent, held by many to be an untrustworthy, ungrateful, unpredictable, evil creature, is informative here. Migrants often resent behavioural traits that disturb shared moral commitments to their communities, which they feel they are building or struggling to maintain in the uncertain circumstances of the mines.

  • 12 I had learnt by then that at Big House and eNkanini, such late night, dark corner, hushed-tones men (...)
  • 13 The term shangaan was historically used in the mines to refer to most immigrants from Mozambique, w (...)

27For one such farewell, I drove into Big House late at night, coming from Johannesburg. In the yard of Kambani, a herbalist I had known for months after settling in Marikana, men sat around an enormous crackling fire, the air humming with conversation. It was not usual to see such late-night fire gatherings at the yards, and quite late too, so I cautiously approached to investigate.12 ‘What has happened that you stand there?’ Kambani bellowed. ‘Why are you not coming to join, do you want to scare us?’ he added ‘It’s Malusi; I saw him park his car’ a male voice replied on my behalf from somewhere in the darkness; it was another neighbour who joined us later. When their faces shone with the tall flames, I noticed some I had known from my stay at Big House. They had gathered to bid farewell to Kambani, a long-time resident of the place. Originally from Mozambique, he had spent his whole working career in the various mines of South Africa. First he was employed in the gold mining city of Welkom, in Free State province, and then on the platinum belt, where he arrived in the late 1990s. It was in Welkom that he met his second wife, an isiXhosa speaker, with whom he had two children. For his herbal and healing expertise many Big House residents called Kambani an ‘ugqirha’ (‘doctor’/‘herbalist’/‘diviner’); for marrying an isiXhosa-speaking women they called him ‘mkwenyana’ (‘son-in-law’); but for some he was just a ‘umShangana’ (‘Shangaan’).13

28Kambani had never gone back to Mozambique to his first wife and family ever since he received South African citizenship in 2004. He was an extremely reticent man, at least to me, so I relied a lot on the informal settlements’ efficient rumour mill to learn more about his story. Even after dozens of mornings when we walked out of our respective rooms and exchanged morning civilities, all that I had got from him was that he had a house in Welkom with his second wife, the South African. He now considered the city of Welkom his home, and was moving there to retire. He had stopped working after his last long-term employer, the Lonmin mining company, offered him a severance package in 2013. Hundreds of other migrant mineworkers received the same offer from the company as part of the mine’s ‘restructuring of operations’ that followed the major strikes of 2012, 2013 and 2014. With his severance package, Kambani bought an old Toyota Corolla car, whose performance on the road he proudly described to me. He, however, stuck around the informal settlements of Marikana after receiving his money and continued to take on temporary contract jobs with several subcontracted companies that operated on the platinum belt. After almost two years, he eventually decided that he was using more money from his package than he was earning with these short-term jobs, and risked squandering his savings, which were dwindling fast. For a career spent in the mines, however, Kambani still had something to celebrate and appreciate—a townhouse in Welkom, a car, a new family, and wife. He had a reason to be grateful and hold an ‘ukuvalelisana’.

29For the farewell, he bought the main drink (it was primarily cheap brandy from a nearby liquor store) so that co-residents and friends could help him do what they called ukurhabulisana nje(‘just allowing each other to sip’) (see, also, McAllister, 2006). On this evening, his wife and two small children had gone to sleep over at her relative’s place in eNkanini, the other large, migrant-filled informal settlement across town. He reported that she said she would rather be away than wait and get incensed by heavy-drinking men. She still ‘understood’, he said, that it was an ‘umcimbi wamadoda’ (‘men’s event’), something ‘to expect’ in general ‘Xhosa custom’ and that she could do little, if anything at all, to stop. So she had decided to leave for a while. Women, especially the wives of migrant mineworkers, if they are in Marikana or elsewhere on the platinum belt, often oppose such men’s drinking and eating gatherings because they view them as wasteful of resources that could otherwise be used for essential household and family expenses. As in other studies on migrant society in southern Africa, the household and social investment priorities of rural communities often differ on gender lines, but also on generational lines (see, Ferguson, 1990, 135–66). Because of such differences, I witnessed open domestic conflicts reminiscent of stories that one would expect from South African tabloids such as the Daily Sun or Drum magazine. On Marikana’s streets, life may imitate, or rather, reflect the tabloids. Picture a woman, a crying baby on her back, approaching her beer-swigging husband at a tavern, or at a street-side drinking and barbecue spot. She grasps him by the belt of his trousers and screams at him, reminding him that he has mouths to feed at home, a homestead to build and take care of, instead of wasting money on male friends, prostitutes, alcohol and meat. The husband tries to hide, takes to his heels, or stands his ground to defend his wounded masculine ego. Men often defend ‘men’s affairs’, arguing they should be allowed time with their friends, away from women, to drink alcohol or watch football, or importantly, and often unsaid, as a way of buttressing male collectives. Such sociality, the very means by which male camaraderie and solidarity are built and consolidated among migrant mineworkers, is sometimes seriously contested by women, especially if it involves prodigality in a manner that is viewed as ‘too much’ by wives and/or other female partners. But these protestations by women go beyond mere disapproval of male prodigality, representing the struggles and conflicts (sometimes taking the form of gender, sometimes of generation) within the ‘politics of presence’. The very social order (of patriarchal authority) that the men attempt to build is often brought into question, given the many setbacks it encounters in the uncertainty of platinum belt life.

30In Kambani’s case, his wife’s protests were not as apparent as the street scene of my imaginary depicted above. In her case, she simply voted with her feet. Kambani organised for those who were physically present ‘to sip’, but also continually extolled his ancestors. He could not stop praising his ancestors because, as he said, they had seen him through his career as a mineworker, and made him meet the right people at the right times, such as those who had gathered around him that evening. A job completed without an accident or death, and which led to the accumulation of some measure of wealth (a car, a South African home, payment of bride wealth) was attributed to the goodwill of God and the ancestors. Kambani used words to extol his ancestors and without laying out ornate tapestries of ritual action—just simple words of thanks and a libation with some brandy on the ground. Sometimes it was the Christian Jesus who received Kambani’s praises in the excitement of the moment.

31I observed that the informal rules of organising collective actions do not always strictly apply to other more casual occasions of feasting and drinking that the same people might organise, such as during a relaxed afternoon of barbecuing or other convivial activities. Such occasions could also be interpreted as attempts by migrants to inscribe and pin down, even for a short period, those domains of sociability that were critical for coordinated collective existence and actions. Among migrants, beer gatherings go beyond mere enjoyment of the drink and are individually and morally valuable for people striving for control over the conditions and meaning of their lives. A migrant, therefore, strikes the right moral code, in my opinion, when he accomplishes something that leaves his compatriots short of words but incessantly nodding and saying ‘enkosi siyabulela mfundini, siyabulela ndoda yomXhosa’ (‘thank you, big man; thank you, Xhosa man’).

6. Conclusions

32Life on the platinum belt is potentially alienating (and migrants know that well), yet it would be erroneous to give the standard picture, offered by some researchers, of migrant communities as people who often arrive on the platinum belt and in other mining regions knowing no one and with no local support (see, for example, Amnesty International, 2016). Such academic and policy conclusions are reached with insufficient understanding of how migrants organise their social life and assert a politics of presence, especially in the informal settlements. Although the struggle to survive and the physical discomfort are real for most migrants, policymakers will do well to engage with the emancipatory desires that are expressed in people’s quotidian world-making at the fringes of a mining economy. In concrete terms, structures of social and political organisation built through people’s own sociocultural imagination and practices should be harnessed for progressive political communication, deliberations and actions, instead of being pathologised and sidelined. Much of the heterogenous practices I have described in this chapter connect to deeply held sociocultural practices, some extending to rural practices, which can be harnessed toward collective political actions. As was the case at Marikana in 2012, cultural hierarchies and groupings such as the umbutho facilitated rapid mobilisation for strike actions. Dunbar Moodie (2016, 851–52, 856) has similarly observed that migrant connections are ‘embedded in rural networks’ and always available as alternative sources of collective solidarity on the platinum belt. The interconnectedness of migrants through social networks and the various roles they adopt are constantly evaluated and adjusted depending on prevailing conditions, most importantly while these migrants anticipate and react to the uncertainties of life and political struggles at the edge of the capitalist mining economy.

33Sociocultural and moral imaginaries and their enactment are modalities through which migrants carve out a social presence and a political presence, sometimes in juxtaposition to or in challenging other actors such as state institutions and the mining companies. In entrenching this political presence, isiXhosa-speaking migrants are able to visibly and audibly make both symbolic and material claims on the platinum mining belt. They makes claims and demands for public services, such as health services, decent housing and amenities, for jobs and better wages, on the fringes of the mines, but build solidarities among themselves.

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1 On 16 August 2012, a gathering of mine workers and other community members—who were vocalising wage-increase demands from Lonmin—ended in bloodshed, as 34 of them were killed by members of the South African police and the mine company’s security.

2 Lucas Mangope was the president of a short-lived black ‘homeland’ government (1977–93) that was situated mainly in the present-day North West province of South Africa. ‘Homelands’, or ‘Bantustans’ were polities created by the apartheid regime as racially segregated and nominally ‘self-governing’ for black Africans. They usually grouped people according to perceived ethnic and linguistic homogeneity. They all collapsed in 1994 and were incorporated into the new democratic South Africa.

3 I use pseudonyms for my interlocutors to protect their identities. I introduce Jeke, because (as will become clear in the chapter) he embodies and symbolises male migrants’ attempts at the creation of a certain sociocultural order, patriarchal authority and social world that has meaning to male migrants in the face of uncertain life conditions on the edges of a platinum economy.

4 One fundamental particularity would be ‘initiation’ into manhood, which involves circumcision, which many isiXhosa-speaking groups carry out, although exceptions such as the amaMpondo people do not.

5 The term ‘Umbutho’ is also used to denote ‘trade union’.

6 This was not an actual interview, but I got this structure from the many introductory greetings I observed during my fieldwork.

7 During my fieldwork, spies supposedly emanated from the police, mining companies, local authorities, rival trade unions, and political parties, among other groups and institutions, who were perceived as harbouring nefarious intentions (real or imagined) with regard to migrants and their communities.

8 As far as I know, my Ndebele-speaking people from Zimbabwe are Ngunis like isiZulu, isiSwati and isiXhosa speakers, but I cannot trace any relation to amaMfengu.

9 A ‘Ben 10’ in South African slang refers to a young man who makes immature decisions when it comes to sexual matters. Sometimes it is used for young men who fall in love with older women. The original ‘Ben 10’ is a character from an American animated television series that is popular with children in South Africa.

10 ‘Equilibrium’ is used here in the sense suggested by Max Gluckman (1940, 28), to mean ‘the interdependent relations between different parts of the social structure of a community at a particular period’.

11 “Women of the mines” was often said derisively of female migrants, especially those who came of their own volition to look for jobs and opportunities on the platinum belt.

12 I had learnt by then that at Big House and eNkanini, such late night, dark corner, hushed-tones men’s gatherings could easily be related to the volatile trade union politics or independent worker committees’ caucuses. I had in mind events of the past few years, especially the 2012 strike and its bloody aftermath. Therefore, I could not be too sure about late night gatherings, and I did not want to be too intrusive. Some of the leading strategists of the strike, as we now know from researchers, came out of such informal settlement caucuses (see Sinwell and Mbatha, 2016).

13 The term shangaan was historically used in the mines to refer to most immigrants from Mozambique, without much consideration for their specific ethnic background back home (see Donham, 2011).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 A poster at Marikana calling members of an ‘umbutho’ from Bizana, Eastern Cape, to a Sunday morning meeting. Below the time and venue is written, ‘We succeed in numbers, fellows’.
Credits Source: Author.
File image/jpeg, 281k
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Electronic reference

Melusi Nkomo, Migrants and the Politics of Presence on the South African Platinum Mining BeltInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 15.1 | 2023, Online since 02 May 2023, connection on 03 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Melusi Nkomo

Melusi Nkomo is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Political Geography Unit of the Geography Institute at the University of Zurich (Switzerland). His research focuses on the intersection of labour, culture and politics in southern African societies.

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