November 4, 2020

“Ndibile”: Unpacking narratives of breathing in dust underground in South African Mines

Mutsawashe Mutendi

Being able to breathe able to breath clean air is vital to our survival and to our ability to perform physically at a high level, however this not the reality for many miners.  The working conditions underground are hot and claustrophobic with little air circulation and ventilation making it hard for a miner to breathe. Furthermore, the working conditions underground contribute to the highest rate of tuberculosis (TB) in the world. The prevalence of tuberculosis among miners is four to seven times higher than for the general population of South Africa, a country with the second-highest rate of tuberculosis in the world. It is against this background that I  explore ideas about tuberculosis infection and management among gold and platinum miners in two South African mineworker communities. Using ethnographic methods, I explore the key organising metaphors used by miners to understand TB in relation to infection and the impact it has on their lives, among them breathing in “dust”. Drawing on Robert Nixon’s (2011) model of “slow violence,” I argue that miners understand TB less in terms of a bacterial infection and more in terms of conditions of life underground. Their concept of “dust” demonstrates that there is an inter-relationship between tuberculosis and dusty working environments regardless of the mineral that is being extracted.


Mutsawashe Mutendi

About Mutsawashe Mutendi

Mutsawashe Mutendi is a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town (UCT).  She is a  part of the research team in the Anthropology of the First Thousand Days at UCT. Her Ph.D. research project aims to explore the effects of mercury on female artisanal and small-scale gold miners of child-bearing age and their infants in Mazowe, Zimbabwe. The main aim of this research is to bring to light some of the challenges female mineworkers and their families, namely, their infants face due to mercury exposure in gold processing activities. In addition, her research aims to highlight the coping strategies that have been employed by female miners to minimize the negative social consequences of mercury poisoning. Mutendi was a  Research Consultant with the TB HIV Care (Stop TB Partnership/Global Fund).  She is also a part-time Anthropology lecturer at the University of Cape Town. Her research interests include mining, health, occupational lung diseases,  TB,  obstetric, and reproductive healthcare, mobility, migration, peace, development, and urban livelihoods.