New Books | Migrant Labour After Apartheid

Women miners have two identities: underground, where traditional markers of femininity must be suppressed, and at home, where they are expected to be ‘good’ wives and mothers.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from “Migrant Women in South Africa’s Platinum Belt: Negotiating Different Conceptions of Femininities” by Asanda-Jonas Benya in Migrant Labour After Apartheid: The Inside Story (HSRC Press, 2020) edited by Leslie J Bank, Dorrit Posel and Francis Wilson. 

Since the mining boom in South Africa in the late 1860s, the mining industry has relied on the migrant labour system for its labour force. Housed in single-sex hostels far from their families, black male migrant workers from the former homelands and other parts of Southern Africa have been the heartbeat of the industry. While men were in the mines, women remained in the rural areas, largely responsible for agricultural production and general social reproduction. Because of the racially prohibitive apartheid pass laws, black women could not legally reside in towns until the 1950s. While historically black women were legally excluded from mining towns unless they were working as domestic workers, they regularly migrated to – and some eventually settled – in these towns. Employment in mining, however, remained elusive even in occupations traditionally considered feminine such as nursing, catering and administration. Sexist cultural notions of womanhood, including Victorian ideas of femininity, myths and superstitions about women in mining, prohibitive laws such as the British 1842 Mines Act, Article 2 of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention 45 of 1935, the South African Mines and Works Act 12 of 1911 and the South African Minerals Act 50 of 1991 all served to reinforce women’s exclusion from mining. 

With the transition to democracy, however, all the prohibitive laws were annulled and substituted by more inclusive laws. In the case of women in mining, the Mining Charter which was drafted in 2002 and promulgated in 2004 categorically stated that mines must have at least 10% women in their workforce. However, not all communities and families were amenable to or supportive of women who wanted to join the mining workforce. As a result, there was stigma attached to women working underground as abomalayisha (lashers). Their “release” to go and work in the mines, therefore, was a negotiated “release”. Even inside the mines, women have been received with suspicion at best and hostility at worst by male co-workers and mine management. Despite the apprehension towards women in the industry, the 2017 Chamber of Mines data show that there were around 53 179 (12% of the total permanently employed workers) women in mining in South Africa. 


Some of these women were from local villages such as Thlabane, Phokeng and Luka. Others, however, like men (though not to the same extent), migrated to the North West with husbands who were being retrenched from the dying gold mining towns; some migrated from other parts of the province outside the core mining belt in Rustenburg. Some women mineworkers, therefore, were from places as far as the Eastern Cape (close to 1 000km from Rustenburg), Taung (over 400km from Rustenburg) and townships in Johannesburg (about 120km away). This was despite housing policies of mining companies stating that mines had to hire local labour within a 60km radius of the mine. These female mineworkers were between the ages of 19 and 45, occupied entry-level jobs in mining (such as equipment helpers, cage attendants, store issuers and a few as scraper winch operators) and a few were miners. The women mineworkers interviewed were, in most cases, the main breadwinners and supported more than one household in Rustenburg (where they resided) and their places of origin, sometimes supporting as many as eight to 14 people. In this chapter I dwell on how these multiple worlds – what Bank calls “double-rootedness” – produce multiple forms of femininity and how women navigate the differences in notions of femininity. I argue that the multiple worlds between which they move engender multiple gendered identities. 

‘Double-rootedness’: Home as both far and near 

Surely to be a miner is to change one’s character … because at home one has to behave one way and at work another way. 

Home (an important space in the construction of gendered identities) has often been downplayed or neglected in mining scholarship or analysed from a masculine perspective, where men are mobile migrants and women are immobile homemakers. Historically, this neglect of the household as a nearby and everyday space made sense since South African mines emphasised hiring migrants from distant places such as the (former) Transkei, Mozambique, Malawi or Lesotho. Therefore, the “home” in mining studies featured as geographically disconnected and isolated from the mines. The emphasis was thus on single-sex hostels as “dwelling units”, and not necessarily homes. 

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In postapartheid South Africa, scores of workers have moved out of mine hostels to build “homes” or rent rooms in nearby townships and informal settlements while retaining their connections to their distant rural homes – in other words, they are “double-rooted”. Because of in-house mine policies which encourage the hiring of local labour, mines have been recruiting from local communities, particularly in the platinum belt. This has made “home” both a faraway space and nearer than before, with miners belonging to two worlds. These changes have meant that the space that was once considered distant, disconnected and isolated has moved closer to the mines while also remaining in the distant rural areas. 

With women entering the mines and commuting daily between work and home, the connections have been strengthened and the significance of the homespace reclaimed. This proximity of the second or third “home” to the mines and daily commuting of women have also meant that they constantly have to navigate different notions of femininity. As with [the above] miners, they too have to “change one’s character … because at home, one has to behave one way and at work another way”. When looking at migrant women, the very idea of being a migrant (sometimes far from family and people you consider to be your community) influenced their gender performance, gender roles and the expectations they navigated, and the kinds of femininities they enacted in Rustenburg. 

Femininities and migration 

Most of the women with whom I worked were from blended and multigenerational households with specific notions of femininity. Married women tended to live with their husbands, children and sometimes younger siblings. In these households, women mineworkers had specific gender roles that were challenged, and to some extent reconfigured, after their entrance into mining. Single local women on the main lived at their parents’ or grandparents’ homes in the (rural) villages around Rustenburg and commuted daily between work and their rural homesteads. As they commuted daily, so their notions of what constitutes femininity transmuted. For some, their ideas about femininity changed significantly after working in mining. As a result, we noted tension in households that were directly related to the entrance of women into mining, an industry previously viewed as exclusively masculine. 

Some migrant women lived in rented shacks or backrooms in formal settlements, or with husbands, relatives, homeboys and homegirls in mine villages. Migrants’ families, as noted above, not only comprised relatives but extended beyond blood relatives. These households were constituted differently; they included homeboy and homegirl networks and were constantly revolving. The rhythms of everyday life in these homes and households influenced gender roles, orders, discourses and performances. These arrangements influenced, in different ways, how the women mineworkers saw themselves and the femininities they performed in the spaces they considered home. It was also in these homes that gender performances were policed and feminine practices inculcated, sometimes “perfected” or rejected. Being a mineworker played a crucial role in the mediation of these practices and discourses. It is important to note that it was against the backdrop of precarious employment and high unemployment that the women entered mining and were doing work that was once exclusively reserved for their male relatives. Like male mineworkers, women’s wages (especially migrants’) were shared with a greater number of people than immediate families and households. The new realities and social shifts caused by the inclusion of women in mining have not only brought about new tensions regarding gender roles and expectations, but have also challenged the taken-for-granted notions of femininity. This has led to reconfigurations of gender and power relations, and gender expectations and practices at work, at home and in communities, and generally in communities around the mines. Below, I illustrate how conceptions of femininity shifted and how others were produced as women moved between their multiple homes and work, as they occupied spaces from which they were previously excluded, and as they did work viewed as exclusively and “naturally” for men. 

Women of many worlds: Competing femininities 

When women say “I’m a miner at work and a woman at home … I’m a man at work and a wife at home” (Katlego 2012, interview, Rustenburg) and “I forget I’m at home and I say, ohhh fuck” (Minnie 2012, interview, Rustenburg), it is an apt indication of the tensions women navigate between home and work. 

At home, women are required to perform particular femininities; at work, femininity “requirements” or scripts are different and sometimes contradict the ones at home. In the above utterances, Katlego saw herself as a miner (and thus a man) at work and a woman only at home, while Minnie (a pastor’s wife who worked underground) saw herself as a woman in both spaces but emphasised and negotiated her womanness differently at work and at home. Minnie’s main focus in mining was to work, earn a living and not necessarily integrate with mine culture or assimilate to masculinity in the same way that other women such as madoda straight or real mafazi had assimilated and integrated. While insisting on being a woman in both spaces, Minnie found the changes she had to make between her home self and her other self difficult to navigate. Minnie was short and said she could not easily command respect at work, where she was not known and respected as a pastor’s wife. Due to her height, she said that talking back or “shouting and cursing” at work helped her to be heard. When she adopted “this attitude” at work, “they stop taking you for granted when they see you can give them back the shit they give you”. At home, however, these actions had different, “negative” meanings and were not “allowed”. She said: “Sometimes you forget that you are at home … my husband usually says ‘now you are forgetting that you are at home, not at the mine’ … he says that if I answer or talk roughly to him … I’ve become so independent. He sometimes asks why I’m doing certain chores because they are his … like fixing things around the house … I know how to do that now, we planisa [make a plan] here, we fix things … we don’t like to be instructed, so we don’t wait before we fix things … but at home, he wants to do it and obviously he instructs you sometimes because he’s your husband. But you think he’s your shift boss and you talk back roughly. You have to stand your ground here [mines], otherwise everyone will bully you … but now I take that home and think of my husband the same way I think of these men.”

At home, to speak back to your husband was a sign of an ignoble wife and contradicted the church’s teachings on how wives should conduct themselves. Minnie had to restrain and “behave herself “ like a good pastor’s wife. She was not supposed to “trade words” with men. Although her husband did not prevent her from working in a traditionally male and masculine job, her household was guided by religiosity (and patriarchy) which saw the man as the head of the house. While she could stand up to patriarchy at work, at home she had to find ways of bargaining with it. 

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Returning to the quote above, Minnie and many other women’s use of the word “forget” when they describe their interactions at home is very important in that it reveals the deliberate effort women put into “being” and speaking “properly” at home. It shows the efforts put into drawing from an acceptable script and performing acceptable femininity. 

While Minnie swore and shouted at work, another female worker (Nkele) emphasised being “strong-willed at work and not letting them bully you”. The same qualities, she argued, were interpreted differently at home and by her husband, and were thus not welcomed. Nkele said: “Sometimes I can be a bully at home … underground we’re always bullies … we’ll be driving and he makes wrong turns or does not even know the road and does not ask … and I tell him what to do … otherwise things go wrong and I become mad … I feel myself getting angry inside if I keep quiet, then he asks something and I just get mad. I feel guilty sometimes … but I hate it when he does not even ask me.” 

It seemed that women’s survival strategy at work and particular performances of femininity could lead to being scolded if used at home, especially with husbands who expected their wives to be respectful and quiet, not “bullies”. Another worker, Lorna, noted that she had to be mindful of her words and actions at home and “not just do what you want to do”. She said: “You cannot be the same person at home and in the mines … you have kids at home … At home, you have to behave maturely, like an adult … You have to think about other people, like how are they going to absorb it [your words] and the kids … My son said, ‘Mommy, since you started working in the mines you’re swearing more now.’ I just forget that I’m at home and I say things like ‘ohhh, fuck’ … you just forget … you get used to it and forget when you are at home.”

While Lorna was sometimes oblivious to her “language at home”, her son’s remarks that she was forgetting that she was at home point to the multiple and contradictory gender accountability regimes at play in the spaces between which they move. Despite the “scolding” from husbands, and reminders from children, women mineworkers out of habit continued to perform femininity in ways that challenged the dominant scripts at home. 

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To cope with the different expectations in the two spaces, some women reconstructed their actions to suit particular feminine discourses. Instead of seeming like she was doing her husband’s chores by “fixing things at home”, Minnie reported that she made it seem like she was a helpful wife, “supporting him like the bible commands”. She said: “I just tell him that I am doing what the neck does for the head … I support the head.” This reconstruction of her actions helped to reduce fights “over these things” and enabled her to carve out a space for herself where she could perform a particular kind of femininity and “rebrand” it in ways that were legitimate in her husband’s eyes and consistent with the church’s teachings. 

While Minnie reconstructed discourses, Nkele said her husband had to “get used to the new me” since she was “not the same woman I was before working underground”. Nkele said: “At home, you cannot ask questions or they look at you funny, you cannot talk too much, you cannot do this and that and so many things … you cannot even joke … you have to select what you talk about … it was not easy … I don’t care anymore … We used to fight a lot and he used to say it’s my work … he didn’t want me to come work here. He is slowly accepting the way I am, I’m not going to change and be his doormat. Before, I didn’t even know, you know, I thought I was being a good wife, avoiding conflict, but fuck that. Why can’t he also be a good husband and avoid conflicts?”

She was adamant that while her mine self was inconsistent with what was expected of her at home and who she was before moving to the mine village, she would not budge. She did, however, continue with certain “feminine” activities: “I still cook, clean and all of that, but he knows he’s not the boss.” 

Other women talked about challenges in managing not only femininity performances at home, but also gendered relationships. Nonzi, another female winch operator who had been transferred informally to the surface to do administrative work, disliked working underground. Yet she liked being underground because she felt that she did not have to conform to gender expectations underground and could forget herself and her problems. She said this about her home: “Whenever I’m at home [back in KwaZulu-Natal] I always miss being at work [in Rustenburg], a lot … Sometimes when I’m at home, I tell my mother to pretend like I’m not around, I just want to sleep and not talk with them so much because they always tell me I’m different now … I cannot do A, B, C, or I should do A, B and C. At home, it’s like you have to watch everything you say … I still feel uncomfortable when people are kissing on TV, it’s a little embarrassing … you’re not that comfortable at home as you are at work … we joke a lot here [mines], I cannot joke with them [family in Rustenburg] about other stuff. If I even talked about kissing, they [uncle and aunt in Rustenburg] would ask me where I learnt that from … I’m from a serious family … Here [in the mines] we’re used to being open-minded about everything but at home you cannot. In the mines, people do things they would never do at home … I’m aggressive at work … but at home I’m a conflict avoider … here you are free, more free than at home.”

Nonzi (a migrant woman from KwaZulu-Natal who lived with her aunt and uncle in Rustenburg) was very mindful of the different “gender scripts” and expectations between work and her home in Rustenburg, and also between her two homes: the one she shared with her relatives in Rustenburg and the one in KwaZulu-Natal where her parents lived. In these two homespaces, she had difficulties bridging the gap or harmonising her actions. The “mine self “ was seen as open-minded and talkative, while the “home self” was the opposite in different ways at the two homes. Thus, the presence of the mine self at “home” was rather noticeable. To negotiate her way out of what seemed like very rigid gender expectations and different accountability systems, Nonzi disconnected herself from her family when she visited them in rural KwaZulu-Natal and asked that they pretend that she was not around. With her relatives in Rustenburg, she “disconnected” or made her “mine self” invisible by watching television and adopting infantile behaviour, which included not commenting on kissing or adult television scenes. She avoided, in different ways, engaging in matters that could expose her “mine self” to her parents and to her Rustenburg relatives. 

Women’s portrayals of their experiences at home show them as subjects who are careful with their actions and words; people who are not entirely free to do as they please; people whose “condition” could be characterised as a “nervous condition”. These subjects attempt to integrate and harmonise what seems like incompatible identities, where the self is fragmented and decentred. At home (and perhaps counter-intuitively) women reported feeling the “weight of the water”, suggesting that women were not necessarily “like fish in the water” or that they felt like “fresh water fish in sea water … meaning the fish swims, however it has a heightened sense of being conspicuously out of place”. Consequently, women like Nonzi who lived with their (extended) families, as opposed to other migrant women who lived with homeboys and homegirls, had to restrain themselves and manage their performances or avoid situations where they would have to “act out of character”. Migrant women who lived with homeboys and homegirls, however, could perform and choose not to conform to traditional scripts of femininity, without severe penalties. However, when they went back to their villages, they had to “manage” their femininity and conform to gender expectations in their rural homes. What emerges when one looks at the day-to-day household negotiations is a picture of a somewhat “disturbed gender order” resulting from the multiple spaces women move between, which ultimately reconfigures their conceptions of femininity.

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