Travelling through the vast agricultural landscape to Johannesburg—to pay our respects to my two-day old niece—was, as always, an awesome spectacle.
Vast recently harvested fields of dried corn and decapitated sunflower stalks; three guinea fowl perched atop a telephone pole like spotted tea-cozies; purple hills with a herd of wildebeest grazing in the shimmering distance; neat rows of farm labourers’ cottages, complete with the one- or two-room school and green plastic water tanks; blackened fire-breaks on austere, unbending verges; numerous sprawling settlements of identical houses, zinc-iron roofs blinking in the sun, neighbouring farms long ago having lost their valuable barbed-wire fencing to the settlement dwellers, and herdsmen and shepherds making a necessary comeback on the farms; steel windmills at parched intervals—revolving metal sunflowers on rusting stalks.
A group of barefoot, barely-clad little boys lay in wait next to the main road, perfectly camouflaged under a clump of trees on the dusty verge, illegal miniature catapults (small Y-shaped pieces of wood with rubber slings, lethal when aimed unerringly) and stones at the ready—a glass-shattering ambush waiting to happen. Dad spotted them taking aim, pressed the car hooter loudly, and the startled kids scattered—all within a split second! Saturday afternoon sport in a Sebokeng township child’s life.
My parents live in Welkom, a dusty but productive gold-mining town approximately 55-years old. The majority of houses belong to the mines (there are six major goldmines and two small diamond mines). There is no substantial industry to speak of, besides mining. The town itself is as flat as a dry, tasteless pancake, the flatness broken by the mastaba—like mine dumps, slime dams, and the spinning steel contraptions indicating mine shafts (each with a workforce of 2,000 or more men) with their nearby mining hostels. There are also huge pans holding the cyanide-rich water used in gold processing, occupied amazingly by flocks of pink flamingoes, sacred ibises, gulls, and other water birds.
A distinctive feature of the town is the total absence of traffic lights and an abundance of traffic circles, or “roundabouts.” (A disparaging joke which often does the rounds, so to speak, is that Welkom residents spend their Sunday afternoons driving around these traffic circles, as their only form of recreation.)
There is a rash of pawn and credit shops, so many I lost count as I walked through the small business centre. One has “Loan Shark” written brazenly on its window, and “Up to R30,000 cash immediately available.” These economic boils are symptomatic of a community struggling with unemployment and its social consequences, ironically on top of its gold mines.
There are also the now-customary signs reading “No Smoking, No Cell Phones and No Guns,” featured prominently outside the banks, and double-lock security doors, and guards who scan you and your bag with a metal detector before you are allowed to darken the bank doors. I watched a pair of scared bullet-proof-vested security guards step out of their armoured van and struggle across a square to deliver a heavy metal case of cash, eyes nervously darting from side to side, fingers clutching hip-held pistols, ready to fire at the slightest provocation. These guards are often targeted in cash heists.
This once-prosperous town, until recently completely dependent on black migrant labour (another disastrous chapter in the history of apartheid), is now “only a skeleton of what it used to be!” according to Daniel, a retired nurse from a local mining hospital.
I tried to find accurate figures on local retrenchment from the local newspaper, with little success. The mines are tight-lipped about precise figures, preferring to focus on “community-based” training courses for retrenched mineworkers, teaching skills such as welding, bricklaying, tailoring, and tile-laying. According to Ken, one of the many mine managers forced to take an early retirement, seven mine shafts have been closed in the last six months, retrenching between 2,000 and 4,000 people from each shaft. And that is the mine we know. There are five others in this area, each with a set of shafts.
Marti, a local journalist who reports on mining-related matters, told of processed gold syndicates, claiming that the police are raiding a particular local community about twice a week to reclaim stolen processed gold-kilograms of it at a time. There is wry joke doing the rounds, saying the economy is so bad at the moment that they are thinking of retrenching workers from the gold thieves’ syndicate.
And then there are those who lost their jobs through AIDS-related illness. An unofficial estimate of HIV-positive patients at Harmony Hospital, one of the major mining hospitals in Welkom, is put at 95 per cent.
After the overwhelming orange dust storms, the first rains of the season have fallen. The freesias have burst into colour, a vine of wisteria is exploding into perfumed bunches of mauve, and a creeper of Jasmine decorates an otherwise austere 1.8 metre high concrete fence. Mom is removing ticks from Meggie the dog. I have just removed one from my wrist. Rusty is waiting, ever-hopeful, with a ball in his mouth. Sparrows are feasting on the newly sprung leaf buds, or hazarding nest-building trips to the compost heap, flying off with retrieved bits and pieces, a fine sprinkling of ash following in their wake.