Underground women miners – Fellows’ seminar by Asanda Benya

13 December 2022

“Women are shifting the spatial norms, challenging the long-established masculine character and exposing its limits,” said Asanda Benya of the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town.

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow Asanda Benya

Benya is part of the sixth cohort of Iso Lomso fellows and in her first residence, working on a book examining how women miners in South Africa construct their identities and understand who they are in the masculine world of underground mining. Benya described this as a “topic I’ve been playing with for a while” and one in which she is fully immersed having worked underground and lived in mine residences for a year at a Platinum Mine in the North West Province where she was “more participant than observer”.

“Women working underground is a relatively new phenomenon, “she explained. “From the early industrial mining period until 2002, with the exception of Asbestos mines, women were prohibited from performing underground work. Apartheid regulated black people’s movement in urban areas and there were dominant sexist ideologies around what was appropriate for women’s bodies – what women could and could not do.”

“Of course, there had been women in above-ground positions but not underground which was considered a masculine space. From 1994 there was a push especially from women in mining communities needing jobs.”

Post-apartheid social transformation also saw many men being retrenched. “So not everyone was happy about including women. The unions were initially against it but later saw it as gender transformation.”

Things changed with the 2002 Mining Charter which stipulated quotas – 10% women in the mining complement, within specific timeframes. “This was linked to the renewal of licences – so the mines had to take it seriously,” explained Benya. “But the 10% was often seen as the ceiling not the opening.”

It was only in 2004, that mines started employing women to work full-time in underground occupations. Most of these women went into mining because of economic pressures and mines employed them because legislation forced them to.

“For women this attitude meant working in an environment not fully prepared to incorporate them, a world governed by androcentric culture, norms, scripts and practices,” said Benya. “To survive, women have had to learn to ‘bargain with patriarchy’ and negotiate spaces that cast them as outsiders and ‘invaders’.”

Fluid spaces

Drawing on her field work at the second-biggest platinum mine in the country with 14 shafts and about 30 000 workers, including +-3500 young women (18 – 40 years old) who mostly “didn’t want to be mineworkers but took up mine jobs because they paid better than other jobs”, Benya focused in her presentation on one chapter looking at how women negotiate mine spaces.

“There is no monolithic ‘mine space’, but multiple and contested spaces in mining,” she said. “These spaces, far from being abstract, neutral and passive surfaces that enable things to ‘take place’, are active with their own spatial rhythms, rules and logics which are implicated in the construction of gendered subjectivities. Power in these spaces is fluidly articulated through institutional and informal rules.”

“My research questions developed from how women cope working underground and navigate the masculine culture to what is it like to be a woman underground, how women understand who they are, and how their subjectivity is constructed in masculine spaces.”

“This is a gendered space that women are changing. I’m interested in their everyday ways of being.”

“I hope to illustrate how spaces and subjectivities are in perpetual dialogue; how they influence, reflect and co-construct each other. As workers move between the different spaces, in preparation for the underground world, they negotiate and sometimes harmonise their ways of being and seeing to spatial logics. It is in these spaces and through iteration that gendered identities are constructed and negotiated.”

“Spaces are not abstract. They have cultures and norms but the scripts are not always visible.”

She described the ‘Surface’ as where the decision makers and power sits, dominated by bureaucratic rules, hierarchies, efficiencies and institutional politics. “Occupied by institutional power and surveillance – super surveillance as the workers say.”

Although masculine subjectivities are very much present, the women who work above ground generally have matric, maybe admin skills – so they feel useful and know they can do the job. “The gender scripts above ground are more familiar to women,” said Benya. “They don’t have to negotiate their identities to the same extent or adopt masculine behaviours. There is a clear distinction from the mineworkers. It’s safer, with more respect and prestige. It’s what they aspire to. If there is sexual harassment – everyone sees it.”


For those who venture underground, the change rooms, although only inhabited temporarily, are an important space for taking on their mineworker identity. “They change from who they are to become their underground selves. This is the space where the underground identity is manufactured on a day-to-day basis.”

And the change of clothing underlines this.

“It’s not just a change of clothes. You take off your home self as you take off your home clothes. You change who you think you are, how you act and how you think.”

Hard hats play a particular role. “You become more alert, rougher, you stop caring,” said Benya quoting workers. “The hard hat blocks the surface noise, clouds the mind. Underground you negotiate danger, negotiate for your life. The hard hat is useful in that transformation process. It makes you shift gears, be more attentive when you negotiate the rocks and death.”

And while the hard hat may be visible, the transformation extends to what’s below the surface. “The women change from lacy and sexy to ragged Jockey – Mgodi – underground underwear. They change even though they have come from home wearing clean underwear. It’s a clear distinction – a way of distancing their above ground or home self from their underground self. Underground underwear is never taken home.”

“They don’t want the two worlds to meet,” added Benya. “It represents a different self – marking feminine bodies from mining bodies. It also enables the reclaiming of femininity once they are freed from underground which is seen as a polluting space for femininity.”

“The physical changes, the changes in way they walk and talk, the overall transition intensifies in each space.”

The cage that takes miners underground is a space only inhabited for a few minutes but completes the transition from above to below. “You are squashed inside, there is pushing and the need for synchronised breathing. The darkness completes their transition to the underground person. They leave their fears behind in the cage,” she said. “But for the women there is also touching, objectification, sexual harassment – it’s figuratively and literally a violent space.”

The cage is the crossover from an included world to one where the women are invaders/outsiders. “There are different scripts, formal orders disappear. Workers determine the moral order. ‘Not mine rules.”

Underground is also dangerous, hot and humid. Typically work is done in stopes about 800 mm in height in which miners crouch for eight hours. The deepest gold mines are 4 km deep, the platinum mines about 1.7 -2.3 km. Rocks can fall at any time. The miners talk about hearing the ‘talking rocks’. “Women are often not taught how to navigate those spaces. Because they are excluded from teams, they do not get to learn to ‘hear’ the talking rocks.”

When underground “the surface self fades away and is forgotten – which is important otherwise you are in danger,” said Benya. “The spaces and bodies interact with the rhythms and rules central in the construction of gendered identities. The mine takes bodies that are gendered, breaks them down and rearranges them – all for productivity.”

In discussion, Benya was asked about pay, sexual harassment, language use, and her changing perceptions.

“The pay is roughly the same,” she said. “But women are usually from the local communities not migrants so there are limitations on where they can live and they pay more for transport and childcare. Production bonuses are also based on team targets. People think the women are less productive so they are removed from high-performing teams.”

Fanagalo is the dominant language. “Afrikaans is used to give instructions, English is regarded as ‘bougie’. Some of the women and younger men don’t speak Fanagalo or Afrikaans above ground because they don’t want to be seen as taking on and accepting the miner identity. To facilitate access for my research I used Fanagalo.”

“You can report sexual harassment but what happens after you report?” she continued. “It’s seen as the way things are. You may also be seen as affecting productivity.”

“But the masculinity is not monolithic and not only men perform it. Women perform versions of masculinity to do the work. There is not one script but fluid negotiation. Women internalise the masculinity. They are doing minework by doing masculinity, not just doing minework,” said Benya. “In other chapters of the book I cover femininities in the making.”

“Before starting work I wrote down what I thought I’d find. With student naïvety, I underestimated the dangers one navigates underground. Luckily the university insisted on insurance because there were many dangerous moments when I relied on those who could hear the rocks. It challenged all my preconceived ideas about safety being guaranteed if one follows mine rules.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

STIAS is a creative space for the mind.