Johannesburg is a sprawling, arid city in the heart of South Africa. The terrestrial high points that outline the city center, jut out of the land and resemble mountains. On one of my first visits to Johannesburg, I vocally admired the “high mounts” protruding out from the vast flat topography of the city. In response, a friend gently told me, “those are not mountains;” they are mine dumps.
The sheer size of these tall, expansive ridges struck me. In South Africa, much of the country’s legacy wrestled with the earth below the surface. The descent underground for lucrative minerals like gold and diamonds created wealth and deprivation. The rural-to-urban movement of migrant labor, either from the countryside towns of South Africa or neighboring countries, supplied the country’s segregated economic, political and social structure with human capital. The fortunes extracted from land and labor became the economic engine of South Africa and maintained its social arrangements.
In We are Zama, Zama, the filmmaker Rosalind Morris offers a snapshot of the lives of three undocumented Zimbabwean migrants, Bheki, Pro, and Jahman. These men participate in work known as Zama, Zama. The term loosely translates to “someone, who illegally searches disused mines for valuable minerals and metals.” And in Zulu, it can refer to someone who “tries and tries again.” Set in Johannesburg, the film begins in the dark. You follow a group of men with headlamps, crawling and descending into makeshift shafts while dodging falling debris. One miner describes the job as akin to gambling. Throughout the film, miners risk death on unstable rocks, inhale polluted underground air, or face head-on the peril of losing their way. In unison, huddled they pray “without your guidance, we will be lost.” The risk/reward of finding gold surpasses the reality of hungry bellies or rent for a shack in the informal settlements where these men live.
Rosalind Morris, an anthropologist, and scholar drew on her ethnographic fieldwork to inform the film’s portrayal of “afterlives” or the “social worlds” of mines exhausted from mineral viability. Conceptually, the term “afterlives” also refers to the livelihoods of these miners and the worlds they have created. As much as the film focuses on migrants who mine illegally for gold, it is a social commentary on the failures of post-colonial liberal democracies in Southern Africa—from smugglers courting migrants from Zimbabwe, to a never-ending search for employment in post-apartheid South Africa.
At its best, the film powerfully offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of these miners. With cameras strapped to the headlamps of the miners, we see them eat, sleep, and crawl through the mines in anticipation of a shaft’s possible collapse. Using mallets, pickaxes, and occasionally dynamite, these men risk death. The extraordinary footage draws in the viewer. As the camera follows the miners, deep into the mines, with emptied bags of millet strapped to their backs, pickaxes, hammers, and short sticks of dynamite, you sense both the resolve and terror these men experience. After days underground the miners ascend from below the surface and the formation of the mineral into gold begins. Footage of women pounding dirt and processing minerals reminds the viewer of the human toil of processing gold without equipment. These are the social worlds.
Unfortunately, the film elides a longer history of insurgent politics by organized miners and the swift, often deadly repercussions those labor activists faced during apartheid as well as in the post-apartheid era. These men live beyond absolute suffering and everyday coping strategies. On a lighter side, a scene of a miner and his wife dancing to Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” on a red wind-up radio, or the group of miners joking and laughing over a game of pool, offer dimension to the film.
The power of We are Zama Zama is the way it captures a slice of a long history of trying to exploit what lies beneath the earth’s surface. Those who descend into the darkness cross the line between survival and discovery. The underground is a place of intrigue and also something to be conquered. We witness how material conditions heavily outweigh the gamble of injury or death. When one miner cuts his hand on a jagged piece of rock, he says, “Where there is gold, always blood is there.”