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Podcast | What can we learn from the men seeking gold and friendship in the mines of South Africa

From left: Khopotso Bodibe, Mpiwa Mangwiro and Rosalind Morris, host and guests of this Cry Like a Boy episode
From left: Khopotso Bodibe, Mpiwa Mangwiro and Rosalind Morris, host and guests of this Cry Like a Boy episode   -   Copyright  Euronews
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As you are reading this, thousands of people are scavenging for gold in the world's deepest abandoned mines of South Africa working as zama zama, clandestine miners.

For some of them, there is no other choice: their families would not have a present, nor a future, otherwise. But for others, this dangerous choice entails unrestricted freedom and the possibility of being the makers of their own destiny. After all, miners bringing home the big bucks are the envy of all their peers.

In the last two episodes of Cry Like a Boy - a podcast dedicated to exploring the pressures linked to "being a man" - you heard the stories of the brothers of darkness from Lesotho.

Men who are willing to put their lives at risk underground to put bread on the table for their loved ones.

We believe these forgotten stories push to the extreme a certain kind of pressure that almost everyone feels around the world: the pressure of being a breadwinner.

During episodes 11 and 12 of Cry Like a Boy, we sit down for a moment of reflection and talk about the unknown world of the zama zama with two guests: Mpiwa Mangwiro, who has explored the social consequences of the extractive industry in South Africa in her role as Advocacy Specialist for MenEngage Africa Alliance; and Rosalind Morris, an award-winning anthropologist who has launched a project devoted to the zama zama, featuring a documentary and several short films.

Our guests touch upon the condition of the women of the zama zama - performing some of the most dangerous tasks in Africa's abandoned mines - but also on the positive forms of masculinities that emerge from underground.

Down there, as days and months go by seeking gold, men are discovering true bonds, friendships, and an enormous amount of creative energy.

About Cry Like a Boy

Cry Like a Boy is an original Euronews podcast that aims at promoting a cross-border discussion on gender roles. Our goal is to enable audiences all around the world to deconstruct prejudices and to better understand gender issues in Africa.

The podcast structure is fairly simple. First, we bring you tales of toxic and healthy masculinities with an original reportage from one African country, in collaboration with a journalist on the ground. Two episodes per country. Then, we discuss the story heard in the documentary with two guests for the next two episodes.

What you are hearing here is the first part of the conversation that stems from the Lesotho documentary.

TRANSCRIPT: Banna Ba Mamaenara in Lesotho: Redemption

Khopotso Bodibe: I am Khopotso Bodibe with you from Johannesburg, in South Africa. In the last two episodes, we heard the stories of Banna Ba Mamainara, the Lesotho men who leave their country to work in South African mines as zama zama, clandestine or illegal miners.

As you might imagine, sometimes it gets quite hard to produce a podcast in pandemic time.

Today you won’t hear the recording of a live conversation with our guests, but we had to record the two interviews in separate moments.

Our first guest is Mpiwa Mangwiro, based in Johannesburg, just like me. Mpiwa Mangwiro champions gender equality in South Africa from both sides of the divide - driven by the belief that gender inequality is harmful to both women and men. She believes equality cannot be achieved if men and boys are excluded from efforts to attain it.

Our second guest is Rosalind Morris, a Canadian anthropologist who has taught at Columbia University for 25 years. Madame Morris produced a documentary called We are Zama Zama, part of a bigger multi-format project. This documentary talks exactly about the story you just heard in the last two episodes but featuring protagonists coming from Zimbabwe instead of Lesotho. With some significant differences, as you will hear.

We chose to focus on the story of the zama zama as one of the biggest pressures all men around the world feel is to provide, to put food on the table for their families. Being breadwinners.

But let’s first meet these zama zama. Understand who they are, exactly.

Khopotso Bodibe: Rosalind Morris; Just bringing you in here, what you can tell us about these young men?

Rosalind Morris: There are people with very different life trajectories, but they know each other, speak the same language. They share the predicament of being marginalised and in fact, I would say oppressed. They are members of an oppressed minority community in Zimbabwe and they share the predicament of economic destitution, which has led so many minority people in Zimbabwe to have to flee to look for work in adjacent countries.

These are people who are following the same routes that their forebears followed for generations. And, as in the past, that kind of cyclic migration means that people have families in at least two places, often many, many more, they're spread out across all of southern Africa. They maintain intense relations with those people. You know, in the age of social media, they're WhatsApping each other just as much as we're Zooming each other.

They're sending small remittances back home if they can. But that's not very likely for people on the bottom rung.

Khopotso Bodibe: Here in South Africa, Mpiwa Mangwiro explored the social consequences of the extractive industry, an industry that since the old times is deeply connected with masculinity. Mpiwa, what are the different pressures that it brings on different genders?

Mpiwa Mangwiro: The extractive industry has had an impact, a differential impact on the different genders, if we're to put it that way. Because when you look at it, as I said, it's an industry that in South Africa, it has serviced at a number of countries.

There is normally an expectation that the men should be the provider. It is often men who have to leave home and have to come and work in this industry because this is a labour-intensive industry.

So there's always also that assumption that men are physically strong and more capable than women to function in this industry. So you find that it is the men who have had to leave the home. And when talking in the context of Lesotho, it's the men who had to leave their homes in Lesotho because of the pressure and the expectation on them to provide for their families. They have to walk away from the families to come and find their footing in this industry, which is its own different forms of violence because of the different masculinities that image and also that interact during the process of establishing oneself in this industry.

You find that sometimes men also go through a lot of violence even as they try to establish themselves as miners through legal or illegal means. And you also find that what then creates is an absence or a vacuum, when they leave home to come and work in these environments or in these mining places.

They leave a family behind - which family now needs to learn to fend for itself in the absence of this provider? Often it's the women, who are left behind by these men, who now have to step up and also find means of trying to fend for the family while this man is away working whatever he can, which is expected to send home. But the reality is... because often these men are away from home for quite a long time, they end up getting to help other families.

So you find that what would result is that this man has left Lesotho. When he left Lesotho, he had a wife and a family there. He comes to this mining town. He ends up meeting another woman. And in the end, he also establishes another family there. So instead of being able to fend and send and take care of the family that has been left in Lesotho, now he has a responsibility to also take care of this family that is with him in this mining town, the resulting issue being another form of conflict.

When he eventually goes back home to Lesotho, he's not carrying much, which is expected of him as a provider. It means that he is also living another family behind, that now he has to live with an absent father who has gone back to the other family. And the women have to step up in those families most times. They have to also step up and play that role that is often associated with the men in their absence.

Khopotso Bodibe: Thank you Mpiwa. Women do play an important role in this story. And it is not at all a passive role. When they are married to zama zama and choose to follow them to the mines, they end up putting their lives at risk exactly as their husbands do. Rosalind Morris, what are the ways in which these jobs affect women?

Rosalind Morris: For those that have spouses in South Africa, in my experience, it's quite unusual for the women who are married to zama zama to be involved in the other kind of work that is often done around the big, The deep-level mines, women do a lot of work around those mines. They are crushing rock. They're doing the most labour-intensive and frankly, some of the most dangerous work because they are crushing rock that is full of quartz and crystal and they are basically breathing ground glass all the time. So it's an incredibly dangerous job that they have. An arduous one. But most men who go underground prefer it if their wives are not working on those crushing fields. When I call the crushing fields and most women who can avoid it, avoid that job, too. So they may work as piece workers, they may take jobs as domestics, they may work in they may have little kiosks or gardens that they sell to, to the market, all that. So it's a pretty heterogeneous world.

Khopotso Bodibe: On this point, Mpiwa Mangwiro same question to you.

Mpiwa Mangwiro: You find that women have also been trying to find their way, and they've also been trying to be involved in the extractive industry. But because of the nature of violence that sometimes comes with this, then certainly they become victims because it's difficult. They suffer multiple forms of abuse. Within the mining towns, we know that when women try to come and be involved in the trade, sometimes they end up having to find themselves getting into commercial sex work, sometimes intentionally, but sometimes unintentionally.

They find that these are the options that they have found, but also you find that the women who have been left home now find themselves in a position where they have to step up.

But it's also because there was an expectation, both from men and from women, that the men should provide, which is steaming out of our societal and gender norms that have always defined or tend to define men as the provider. So is that woman has also had an expectation on her men to provide, then when the men leave, you find that women then find themselves having to carry this responsibility and having to face some of the multiple forms of challenges and abuses that they face.

So, yes, they are also victims but is also a part where they also try to play a part. But unfortunately, because of the nature of how sometimes harmful gender norms, toxic masculinity, and societal expectations play out, then they end up also being victims in the process.

Khopotso Bodibe: If we can just get back to the question of breadwinning. The reason these young men leave South Africa is that they feel the pressure of being breadwinners. Let’s talk a bit about this Mpiwa, what are your thoughts? What do you see?

Mpiwa Mangwiro: So what happens is that there is this general tendency to expect that a typical man is a man, you know, the hegemonic masculinity. And a typical man is a man who's supposed to provide to provide shelter, to provide food, to provide clothing, to be able to protect their family. That's the kind of expectation from society over the definition of a typical man. So what you then find is because Lesotho is a country that also has its fair share of economic challenges, the reality is sometimes the opportunities for men to be able to play that role where they can be gainfully employed and be able to provide for their families is limited.

And they find themselves having to cross over to South Africa where there's been a thriving extractive industry or thriving mining expectations. In that decision, when men make that decision, it is because they are trying to live up to those expectations. They are trying to live up to that pressure where they are saying they need to go and find means of provision. So what becomes particularly... you are talking where people have not noted a high form of education, for them to try and look for formal employment, the next available thing that they can do for them is to come and join the work in the mines.

So first of all, this is the pressure that is put on a man. That is, as a man, you've got to provide. You've got to find a way. If you are not able to provide, then you are not good enough as a man. Or if you have no means of taking care of this family, you are not good enough as a man, which also creates this form of emasculation that comes with not being able to live up to this societal expectation of being able to provide.

So even the young men have this pressure that they need to cross the borders and go find employment so that they can be able to provide, so that they can be able to have money to pay for the dowry price for their wives. So that's the pressure that it brings, if you are not able to make the provision, then you are not man enough.

And also the other pressure is because the extractive industry is also coming with its own challenges. There's a lot of wars. There's a lot of fights that are happening in that process as men try to establish themselves and set their feet in this. Sometimes they are forced. They find themselves put in a place where they are forced to commit crimes so that they can be able to get protection or to able to survive and sustain themselves in that environment. So this is the physical pressure that is on the men.

Khopotso Bodibe: But down there in the mines it is not all about toxic masculinity and harmful behaviours. Rosalind Morris drawing from her decade-long experience investigating the world of zama zama from Zimbabwe explains.

Rosalind Morris: These are people who are living on the absolute threshold of livability, right? But they are not people who consider themselves to be without choice. In fact, it's very important to recognize that for people who work as zama zama, this is often thought to be a sovereign choice because they are not working for other people - or this is the story they tell - because they can work when they wish to earn enough to survive.

And then, when they are able to when they have enough accumulated, they will stop going underground for a while, then pick it up again when they need it.

It's got a rhythm, the rhythm of need, and they pursue that. But it's also important to realize that their lives are not completely abject. You know, there's an enormous amount of creative energy. There's great pleasure underground. People listen to music, they eat together, they sleep together. They spend days underground and in really intense social life and not just scrambling for the tiniest morsel or the smallest bit of money.

So they have a very, very intense bond underground, people who work together in teams who know each other, usually who come from the same community, who speak the same language.

I mean, you have to understand that five or six or seven languages might be spoken by different groups underground in any mine. But that bond is sort of proven in the moment that someone is injured or killed underground and they will do anything to bring that body up and they will do almost anything to ensure that that body is returned to its home so it can be reconciled with ancestors.

I mean, it often a huge, huge risk and cost. They will spend all their savings, all the savings they've saved to go home to transport a body. And you could say in one way that that's a kind of dense social node of solidarity and fraternity. And it also works in some ways as the inversion of the funeral societies, because instead of allowing people to save money and share it in moments of need, it basically is dissipated with every catastrophe.

Khopotso Bodibe: Thank you for listening to Cry Like a Boy. In the next episode, we’ll continue our conversation and dive into the ways in which toxic masculinity can play a role in the zama zama’s lives and expectations.

This show has been produced by me, Khopotso Bodibe, in Johannesburg; Pascalinah Khabi in Maseru, Lesotho; Lillo Montalto-Monella, Marta Rodríguez-Martinez, Naira Davlashyan, Arwa Barkallah and Mame Peya Diaw in Lyon.

Special thanks go to Lory Martinez, Clizia Sala from Studio Ochenta for helping us produce this podcast. The music theme by Gabriel Dalmasso.

I would like to thank our guests, Rosalind Morris and Mpiwa Mangwiro.

We remind you that this podcast is at the heart of a multi-format project, which also includes video portraits, web articles and op-eds. You can find more information on Cry Like a Boy here.

Follow us on Twitter @Euronews and on Instagram on @Euronews.tv

Please do not hesitate to listen and subscribe to the podcast on euronews.com or Castbox, Spotify, Apple, Google, and Deezer, and, of course, give us a review, if you wish!

Also, don’t be shy to share with us your own stories of how you changed and challenged your view on what it means to be a man using the hashtag #crylikeaboy.

If you are a French speaker, this podcast is also available in French "Dans la tête des Hommes". In the French episode, we invite the woman leading a 18 months-long strike of cleaning ladies in a hotel in Paris, and with a sociologist from Gabon who knows a lot about invisible workers".

In the next episode, we’ll continue the discussion with Mpiwa and Rosalind. See you in two weeks!

This programme was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.