Digging into the past – doing research among South African mineworkers

Julia-FoudraineYour research plan, your perspectives and ideas, your research methods and your hopes and dreams: you take them with you on a long journey called fieldwork. However, and usually the case with fieldwork, all of these things that I took with me on the plane to Johannesburg were soon to be crushed because I was going to do research among South African mineworkers.

Are we done yet?
I was warned that mineworkers were difficult interviewees because of a lack of education, language problems and the tough kind of environment they are working in. I was lucky that a couple of other researchers introduced me to some mineworkers who were willing to talk to me. However, without a translator, asking anything more than simple questions was not possible and I really had to adjust my research and questions to that. Sometimes I was not so lucky with my interviewees. The first mineworker I wanted to interview made me wait for four hours on the first day, three hours on the second day and ‘only’ one hour on the third day before he had time for an interview. One woman even asked me after two questions whether we were done yet. Something that I had to learn the hard way, but which was also very understandable from their point of view: our research is not so interesting to all of us.

A voting meeting of the labour union – Rustenburg

A voting meeting of the labour union – Rustenburg

Marikana strikes
The research that I did for five months was aimed at exploring the history, the leadership and the political alignment of a labour union: the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). This union is known for its involvement during the so-called ‘Marikana Massacre’. The Massacre is a different term for a strike in 2012 in the Rustenburg area, about 100 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, when 34 mineworkers got killed by the South African Police Service in an attempt to end the strike. The mineworkers had separated themselves from their labour union, the Union of Mineworkers (NUM), because they were not only dissatisfied with their current working and living conditions but also with the union. According to the workers, the NUM was no longer representing the mineworkers but had chosen the side of the mining management. During the strike, AMCU introduced itself as a union that had chosen the side of the mineworkers and tried to negotiate with management and mediate between management, NUM and the workers. After the horrific ending of the strike, a majority of the mineworkers, left NUM and joined AMCU. Within one year, the membership rates of AMCU rose from 9,489 in 2011 to 42,766 in 2012.

A protest march by another labour union – Emalahleni

A protest march by another labour union – Emalahleni

Troubled history
One part of my research consisted of interviewing involved mineworkers in order to get a grip on the troubled history of the union and their perspective on the leaders of AMCU. AMCU has been around for more than ten years now but only managed to get in the picture after Marikana. The union is led by Joseph Mathunjwa who seems to have a tight grip on the rest of the leaders and the members. Despite many stories and rumours about AMCU being militant, violent, just as uninterested in their members as other unions and having a difficult-to-handle president, many mineworkers, labour experts, friends and foe express themselves fairly positive about the ‘new’ union. As a breakaway from the NUM, AMCU tries to approach matters differently without losing sight of their members – this is an opinion that I have heard many times. But the question is if they can meet the high expectations, because a growth of more than 400 percent in one year is not an easy thing to deal with.

One of my interviewees in front of his shack – Rustenburg

One of my interviewees in front of his shack – Rustenburg

Many stories to tell
Looking back at the many experiences and adventures I had and the large amount of stories I can now tell at birthday parties and family reunions, my field research has been the most impressive time of my twenty-three year old life so far. South Africa, with the (sometimes) strange phenomena, people and values, will always bring a smile to my face when thinking back to the many, many memories.

Julia Foudraine


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