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Excerpt from Get Me Started by Sipho Hlongwane

Get Me StartedSipho Hlongwane’s Get Me Started is one of the latest additions to The Youngsters series. Read the following excerpt in which he visits mineworkers who are embarking on a strike and reflects on his father’s own experiences of working in the gold mines of the Vaal Triangle.


By the most reliable accounts, I was born frail and almost unable to breathe without assistance. Till today I carry remnants of the asthmatic condition I was born with. It is a particularly cruel disease to any child with ambitions of physical prowess, and I was gifted with a passable athletic ability. In rural KwaZulu-Natal the only noble pursuit placed before children was sport. On more than one occasion I lay gasping in bed while my frantic mother administered an asthma inhaler (sometimes we were forced to rush to the doctor to find an oxygen tank) and scolded me for literally nearly running myself to death.

As a tiny child who would only match his peers in physical size in his last year of high school I naturally thought that my father was the toughest man in the world. Back then, he jogged incessantly in the mornings, and would often come home and then spend another hour shifting soil about in the garden. It was mind-blowing stuff for a boy who couldn’t run for ten minutes. (This is not to mention the agony upon being ordered to find a garden fork and join in the fun.)

My father is broad and stout, and preferred to jog in a pair of stout military boots. From my inevitable perspective from behind, he was a great military general, forging a path for his army through the fields of mud he insisted on running in. When he was still physically able to, he would sometimes go out at night with friends to hunt wild pigs. On those days, he would wear a big coat and carry his 9 mm Luger under his coat.

I saw that gun many times in the years before I started school. Sometimes it would be a group of men carrying an array of weapons. The women would mutter loudly about the coming danger, and warn us children never to talk to anyone we didn’t know. (We Hlongwane boys were privately warned never to betray our Tswana blood to anyone we didn’t know.) Wide-eyed with fear, we would ask what would protect us from this impending doom? God, the answer came. And, of course, the guns. Later, in my first year of school, the guns were put away and flags bearing the face of Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi were taken up. ‘Siyovota’ was the new shout. We’re going to vote.

~ ~ ~

Somewhere in the middle of the shacks, we come across a man who stands out. Xolani, let’s call him, is short, heavyset and is wearing a taqiyah, the Islamic cap. He ignores an outstretched hand of greeting. ‘Are you a rock drill operator?’ we ask. He nods curtly.

After some minutes of prying, he finally opens up when we ask him what his job entails exactly

He replies in broken English. Every single day, the drill operators are expected to drill through 30 metres of rock. His allocation is 10 metres every shift. The tunnel is only about 1.3 metres high, and so he has to squat and point the heavy drill into the rock and hold it as steady as he can as it thumps away (he is squatted down with his arms pointed out straight to demonstrate). He does this for eight hours per shift, in stifling heat, surrounded only by the din of the drill and the occasional presence of a shovel boy who shifts the broken rock that piles at his feet.

‘This is a very difficult job. Very difficult. Most people can’t do it. Only the strongest men,’ he says.

You have to take a number of tests to be a driller, Xolani tells us. You have to take a physical examination, a heat test (you’re placed in a heated room for some time to test your ability to withstand underground conditions) and a skills test. There is a certain amount of knowledge that is expected from you, but the company does not actually provide training for the job, we are told. The only way to learn is to be a shovel boy and steal opportunities to observe an experienced driller at work. Then you have to take the test. Xolani makes a writing motion with his hand, and then verbally confirms that this is a written test. This used to be a huge handicap, he says, since most drillers couldn’t write. The newer ones have been taught to read and write; the extent of their education.

Is it true that they are only paid R4 500? He goes into his shack and re-emerges with a payslip. His basic pay for the month is R4 365.90 – add to that a R1 850 housing allowance, benefits and some bonus pay and his gross pay is around R8 124.80. After his union fees, unemployment insurance, other fund contributions and tax, his take-home pay is barely over R5 000. This is in a month in which he did quite a bit of overtime, Xolani says.

‘Maybe I send home two or two point three [thousand]. What am I left with? I have to eat with this money, buy clothes and everything. There’s nothing left after that. I can’t put money away. Even small improvements I want to make around the house are impossible. My mother, wife and child all know that I have a job eGoli, but what do I have to show for it? It’s a shame for me. You can work here for years and have nothing at the end. Not even a little scrap car,’ Xolani says.

Compare that to the mlungu bosses in the company, we’re told. He takes home hundreds of thousands every month. His housing allowance is R50 000. The last figure sounds inflated, but it is impossible to quibble with Xolani under the circumstances of our meeting.

‘No, we want that R12 500. Then we will feel like we are earning something. The truth is that this company has platinum because of us. If we did not drill, they would not have it. Why must we work like slaves for nothing?’ he asks. He repeats one phrase repeatedly: ‘Sikhathele’. They are tired and have had enough.

~ ~ ~

I spent some of my school holidays loitering about with the sort of illiterate Zulu boys and men one only finds in KZN. They inhabited a world that was infinitely more romantic than mine. It was free of irritations such as homework and broccoli, and its youngsters spent their days frolicking in the hills with livestock instead of in classrooms ruled by humourless geriatrics. Most impressive of all, these boys had tough, calloused hands and smelled of sweat and physical labour. They were everything an impressionable six-year-old wants to be.

I always imagined that these rough hill types would look down on my father for being a school teacher and not a manual labourer. Imagine my astonishment when one day one of them turned to me and said: ‘You are not a man like your father. He is a real man. He was worked down in the mines, striking and breaking the rock. That is the hardest job in the world.’

He went down on one knee, pointed his hands out and made a loud, ringing noise. He flexed his muscles while doing it. The little sketch was clear: he was working a drill in a mine shaft, and clearly thought it was the coolest job ever.

~ ~ ~

Another man walks up to us. He is tall, wiry and his face and arms are covered in a shocking array of scars. He is also a drill operator and is louder and more militant than his colleague.

‘This is our land, yet the white man is killing us underground for fucking little money,’ he barks. ‘We are tired.’

Both men assure us there is no turning back on their demands.

Out on the street, the mood has changed perceptively. A handful of people had been watching us talk to the drill operators and as we walk out of Xolani’s little yard, they begin to approach us and talk freely. It seems that the approval of these two men has made it okay for everyone else to talk to us.

~ ~ ~

What my father did before I came along wasn’t of much interest to me. It was enough that he was there. But that herdboy friend threw open a new world of discovery: my dad did awesome things that I didn’t know about.

When I returned to the house, I confronted my father to know what he’d done after leaving school. He sat my younger brother and me down to tell us. Or rather, show us. He first reached into his mouth and, to my undying horror, unhooked his front upper teeth and held them out. That was my introduction to the brutality of township life. My father grew up in Sebokeng, outside of Vereeniging. One night, he was walking home when someone attacked him by striking him on the head with a rock, robbed him and left him for dead. He roused himself, stumbled to a nearby cousin’s house and knocked. In his state, he’d walked up to the wrong door. The owner mistook him for a burglar and struck him in the face with a metal pipe, smashing his front upper jaw and cracking his skull.

My brain was still reeling when my dad showed us his left knee. A huge scar ran from about 30 cm above it to about midway down his shin. It was jagged and if you looked closely you could still see the row of small indentations where the crude stitch-work had run. We then learned of his years in the gold mines of the Vaal Triangle. After finishing school, he followed his older brothers into the mines where he worked as a miner’s assistant. His job was to go underground, collect rock face samples and photographs, and then take them to the miner above ground. That man would analyse the rocks and photos and then make plans for the placing of explosives. My father would go back underground and make the necessary marking.

He described the shafts as being several kilometres underground and so hot that we boys would want to get out within seconds. It was dark, loud and extremely dangerous. ‘If you looked up to the roof, sometimes you could see rocks as big as cars hanging down. If they came down, you were lucky to come out alive,’ he said. By his description, it was only a matter of time before someone got hurt.

His turn came one day when a small earth tremor caused a tunnel collapse. A large rock came within inches of crushing him. He got away, but not before it gouged open a huge wound in his leg. He still had the medic’s photo and showed it to us. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to a wound like that is on swimmers after a shark attack.

This all happened deep in the State of Emergency years as apartheid began winding down. There was no such thing as suing the employer if you were black. My father’s path to the mines was not typical – he was actually born in what was then the Transvaal. It was my grandfather who moved his family from the Bergville area to the farms of the northern Free State so that he could work as a farm labourer. I later discovered that nobody really bothered to keep records, so I have no idea who his family in Natal were, or if he had any property there, or indeed what kind of standing he had in the clan.

~ ~ ~

Outside on the street, an older man walks up. He has been working in this mine since 1985 and is now a team leader. It means that he doesn’t handle a drill any more, but is still down in the hole with the men. The work takes a huge toll on the body, he says. The one thing that always goes is the hearing. He was told that his ears were permanently damaged in 2008 – around the same year that the company finally introduced hearing protection. ‘It was too late for the old ones,’ the team leader says.

His net pay is around R7 000. Of that money, he can only spend half on his needs as he is deeply in debt and spends about R3 500 servicing it every month. It does not require a stretch of imagination to imagine where this could have happened. The small town of Marikana is dotted with the offices of loan sharks.

‘We are not going back until we get this money. Sikhathele. Otherwise we could just as well go home and die,’ the older man says.

We overhear a conversation about a burned house. A few shacks away, we spot the smouldering remains of a shack. It was apparently torched in the night, just a few hours before we arrived. The man it belonged to is suspected of being a police informant. It isn’t clear what he did exactly, but the evidence against him was his absence when a group came looking for him. The grotesque side of the striking miners is never far away, even as they reel in the face of outrageous police brutality.

As the sun rises higher in the sky, people start filling the dusty paths and all are convinced that President Jacob Zuma will make an appearance to tell them where to go to find their missing men. They’ve also heard that Julius Malema is coming.

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