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Fables of death: law, race and representations of African mine workers in Umteteli Wa Bantu in the 1920s.

When Sir John French appealed to the British people for more shells during Easter week, the Governor-General of South Africa, addressing a fashionable crowd at the City Hall, Johannesburg, most of whom had never seen the mouth of a mine, congratulated them on the fact that "under the strain of war and rebellion the gold industry had been maintained at full pitch", and he added that "every ounce of gold was worth many shells to the Allies". But His Excellency had not a word of encouragement for the 200,000 subterranean heroes who by day and by night, for a mere pittance, lay down their limbs and their lives to the familiar 'fall of rock' and who at deep levels ranging from 1,000 feet to 1,000 yards in the bowels of the earth sacrifice their lungs to the rock dust which develops miners' phthisis and pneumonia - poor reward, but a sacrifice that enables the world's richest gold mines, in the Johannesburg area alone, to maintain the credit of the Empire with a weekly output of 750,000 [pounds sterling] worth of raw gold. (Plaatje 1982 [1916]: 20)

Sol T Plaatje wrote these words en route to England in 1914, to support a delegation led by members of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) against segregationist legislation passed by the government of the Union of South Africa. One of the references that he makes in the preface to Native Life in South Africa (1982[1916]) is to the collaboration between the gold industry and industrial capitalism in Johannesburg. In the passage quoted above, he draws his readers' attention to the critical importance of African labour to the prosperity of the industry. He also informs his readers that African labourers receive "not a word of encouragement" for their efforts. Mine labour, he says, causes illness, injury, and death amongst Africans. He offers his readers a sense of how African labourers were made to seem passive, being denied the possibility of articulating their thoughts and feelings regarding their subordinate position.

Native Life in South Africa is concerned with the effective disenfranchisement of Africans. Under the Union government, they were not only compelled to "pay all duties levied by the favoured [white] race", but were alienated from the basic rights of citizenship. "Even criminals dropping straight from the gallows have an undisputed claim to six feet of ground on which to rest their criminal remains, but under the new operation of the Natives' Land Act, little children, whose only crime is that God did not make them white, are sometimes denied that right in their ancestral home" (1982[1916]: 90). In relating the legal bondage of Africans to race-based capitalism, Plaatje suggests that the political economy of the Union of South Africa hinges on racial difference. To illustrate his argument, he turns to the African labourer as an example of the racial logic of South African capitalism: "'The black man's burden' includes the faithful performance of all the unskilled and least-paying labour in South Africa, the payment of direct taxation to the various municipalities - to develop and beautify the white quarters of the towns while the black quarters remain unattended" (19).

The previous century, which had ended with the South African War (1899-1902), had also seen the military defeat and conscription of the labour resources of African chiefdoms by colonial forces, led primarily by British colonists and supported by capitalist magnates. The South African War and the events of the decade following its end were crucial to the shaping of the Union of South Africa. Ultimately, developments during the decade "gave the imperial owners of capital invested in the mineral wealth of South Africa unlimited political power over 'native labour' and unprecedented opportunity to increase their wealth and influence" (Magubane 1996: 276). The gold industry was a pivotal site for the accumulation of surplus capital. As Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane observes, "In 1910 gold made up 80 percent of South Africa's exports. The Dominion's Royal Commission of 1914 estimated that 45 percent of South Africa's total income was attributable directly or indirectly to the gold-mining industry" (Magubane 1979: 103).

When the European powers went into the First World War in 1914, in South Africa, any prospects for the happy integration of Africans into the framework of citizenship in the polity were dashed by the laws passed during the previous few years. As Plaatje explained,
   Personally we must say that if anyone had told us at the beginning
   of 1913, that a majority of members of the Union Parliament were
   capable of passing a law like the Natives' Land Act, whose object
   is to prevent them from ever rising above the position of servants
   to the whites, we would have regarded that person as a fit subject
   for the lunatic asylum. But the passing of that Act and its
   operation have rudely forced the fact upon us that the Union
   Parliament is capable of producing any measure that is subversive
   of native interests; and that the complete arrest of native
   progress is the object aimed at in their efforts to include the
   Protectorates in their Union. (1982[1916]: 70-1)

In this framework, the official national discourse of "closer Union" meant the relegation of Africans to a subaltern existence. The political effect of the legal procedures of the Union of South Africa was the consequence of the articulation of the political economy with the discursive regimes of what Edward Said condemned as "political knowledge". (1) It is, as Talal Asad has argued, "in the context of the question of law as power, that the process of naming and defining relations is a modality of power, not because it confounds people's perceptions of reality, but because it constructs the unequal social conditions within which groups of people are obliged to live and struggle" (Asad 1984: 606). I shall argue that the "scenarios of representation" obtaining in Umteteli Wa Bantu inserted Africans into an economy that moralised the imperatives of labour in particular ways, to the extent that the meanings presented by the African body did not function outside of the "specific conditions, limits and modalities" prescribed by racial subjectivity as a construct and effect of the law (Hall 1999).

One way of decoding the relationship between the law and African mine workers as the objects of a differentiating regime of knowledge is by asking the question: what assumptions regarding subject constitution and, more importantly for social and political institutions obsessed with policing the boundaries of race and mobility, self-constitution of the subject, inhere in a social formation that denied Africans the rights of citizenship? The discursive registers that I am concerned with are organized as pedagogies of labour. As Alexander Butchart demonstrates, "the birth of the migrant labour population as an economy of human bodies required the deployment of methods able to transform the collective and individual bodies of Africans into a systematized domain of knowledge about how disease, deviance and normality circulated within it" (1998: 94). Butchart's insight that "[t]he operations of sovereign power and discipline" combine in order to "sustain a quintessential regime of discipline and punishment" (1998: 92-2) can be extended beyond a meditation on the techniques of surveillance and discipline, and applied in a context where narratives, images, and texts perform similar processes upon African bodies. The techniques used to present African bodies to Africans themselves in both their desired and undesirable states imply that the internal (textual or pictorial) and external (social/circumstantial) structures that worked on the African subject informed each other.

This line of inquiry does not necessarily account in straightforward ways for the intersections between the law and the ideological constructions of racial subjectivity. I wish to suggest the situating of the law and Umteteli Wa Bantu as structures circumscribing possible interactions. It is through reading for the points of articulation between the permissible and the transgressive, the good and the bad 'native', that the situation becomes open for analysis.

I focus on the paradoxical aim of rendering the African mineworker helpless in a nexus of controlling laws and regulations, at the same time convincing him that he is responsible for his own health and safety in this unfamiliar context in which he is powerless. With this objective in mind, I shall give an overview of the historical and political context of Umteteli Wa Bantu. I shall show how the newspaper exhorted African labourers to imagine themselves and their bodies within the context of their work. I then explore cartoons 'benignly' aimed at the production of normative mine workers. I end my discussion with a meditation on economies of death and how racial difference and legal subjectivity inscribed death with particular meanings, emphasising the ethical and moral conceptualisations of injury and death in the mining environment. I am interested in the discursive sites that seem to function as signifiers of the commitment to rituals of labour of African miners, and how the law controls the conditions of their existence.

Law, race and labour hegemony

I turn now to a brief consideration of how the law provided a structure of coercion for African mine workers. In the early decades of the twentieth century, large numbers of Africans migrated to the industrial centres of the country. Most were proletarianised by the wage labour system and the appalling living and working conditions on the Witwatersrand. Despite the fact that the number of Africans living in the area was estimated to have increased from 55,765 in 1904 to 115,120 in 1921, their wages in the 1920s an average of two shillings per shift - had remained virtually constant for a decade (Peterson 2003: 32; Allen 1992: 284-85). In contrast to Africans, white mine workers earned an average of 20 shillings per shift. The rise in the cost of living meant that African mine workers "needed an increase of at least 163 per cent over the maximum average wage of two shillings a shift simply in order to keep pace with the cost of living" (Allen 1992). Between November 1919 and the early months of 1920, the Witwatersrand was rocked by a series of mine strikes in response to living conditions, low wages and the pass system that affected African mine workers. Though the response of the African political leadership to these strikes was divided, the mobilization of workers "briefly radicalised African politics in the Transvaal" (Switzer 1997: 36; Bonner 1987). In many parts of the Rand the mine strikes were contained through arrests and the use of the armed forces.

If, as David Roediger argues, "the 'white worker' developed as a self-conscious category mainly by comparing himself to Blacks" (2003: 23), then this racialism found its reification in the law. In the 1910s and 1920s legislation was passed that drew the lines for a racialised contract of labour in South Africa. Under the Native Labour Regulation Act of 1911, for instance, Native Labour Inspectors were to be appointed who "could enter any compound to arrest any black mineworker suspected of contravening" any of its regulations (Allen 1992: 199). The Mines

and Works Act of the same year reinforced the colour bar:

It had incorporated the discriminatory legislation of the Transvaal into its proposals but had widened its scope so that blacks were excluded from the supervision and operation of all boilers, engines and machinery as well as being refused certificates of competency for the jobs of engine drivers, underground engine drivers and miners. The Mining Regulations Commission stated that "no person other than a white man shall conduct blasting operations" and went on to propose the restriction of the jobs of banksmen, onsetters, shiftbosses, surface foremen and mine overseers to whites. (Allen 1992: 202)

In effect, the law sought to reduce African mine workers to abject subjects, stripped of any legally recognised rights of protest or resistance. They were imagined to function best when defined by (and accepting the definition of) "bare life" (JanMohammed 2005: 8-10). They themselves could neither define nor influence the terms under which they engaged in work. Of course, such a closure was far from being an established fact. The disciplining of the African mine worker would also have to take place in the interior domain of subjective self-constitution.

Umteteli Wa Bantu and the Exigencies of Hegemony

The response of white philanthropists, institutions, and missionaries to the radicalisation of African mine workers on the Witwatersrand and the dangers that it posed was to diffuse tensions through the creation of racially-based cooperatives and recreational spaces as a means of "moralizing [the] leisure time" of Africans (Peterson 2003: 33-38). The founding of the Joint Councils of Europeans and Africans and the Bantu Men's Social Centre in 1921 and 1924 were efforts to forge an ethos of cooperation among Africans and Europeans. The Chamber of Mines supplied funds that enabled the founding of Umteteli Wa Bantu in May of 1920. As Les and Donna Switzer have suggested, the establishment of Umteteli Wa Bantu was significant because it marked the beginning of the interest of white businesses in the African press, representing their attempt to counter the "potential influence of an increasingly militant [African] protest press" (1979: 7).

Umteteli Wa Bantu was circulated largely on the "Reef[in the Johannesburg area] and in the home areas of South Africa's mine workers [such as] the Orange Free State, Ciskei and Transkei" (Switzer 1988: 369). It was published in English, Xhosa, Zulu, SeSotho and SePedi. Given its affiliation to the Chamber of Mines, it is not surprising that Umteteli Wa Bantu's response to the turmoil was biased in favour of white authority. In the inaugural issue, some of "THE OBJECTS of this paper" were announced as follows: "To point to the relation of hygiene and health", "[t]o demonstrate the respective duties and obligations of the employer and the employed", and "[t]o promote the common interests of Europeans and Natives" (1920). These claims were tinged with the political anxieties of the African intelligentsia.

The ambivalence of the African elite was occasioned by its difficult position: "The African petty bourgeoisie was now clearly in danger of being pushed wholesale into the ranks of the working class and unemployed" (Bonner 1987: 38). Its "intermediate location between capital and labour" led to its tendency to be "swayed by the political pressures of either of the two principal classes" (Peterson 2000: 16). Given the rise of a militant orientation within the South African Native National Congress and the Transvaal Native Congress, "key African nationalists in the Transvaal, including Saul Msane and Isaiah Bud-Mbele, became alarmed by the militant posture of Abantu-Batho [the official newspaper of the SANNC] and sought to involve the Chamber of Mines in funding a newspaper that would counteract its influence" (Switzer 1997: 33). This tension is apparent on the first pages of Umteteli Wa Bantu. A short statement declares in Xhosa that "The editors of 'Abantu-Batho' are at odds with us at 'Umteteli Wa Bantu'" (Editorial 1920). Four years later the newspaper reminded its readers that it remained committed to "preach[ing] racial amity" and propagandizing against "the missionary work of the Russian Bolsheviks and the English Socialists" (1924). Nowhere did Umteteli Wa Bantu seem more drawn to mediating the play of economic, social and ideological forces than in its commentary on African labour and the mines.

"Looking After Yourself': "Health Notes" and the care of the self Umteteli Wa Bantu produced columns and cartoons addressed to African mine workers which, in disseminating information and advice, presented a body of knowledge regarding the health and discipline of the body in the home and the mine. In an early issue, the column "Health Notes" instructs African miners about the importance of their surroundings: "Too much importance cannot be placed upon the conditions under which we live, and we have in another column expressed ourselves on the social effect on the individual of unwholesome surroundings. We shall here give some hints concerning the physical side of the question, and inform our readers how they may carry the good work of cleanliness and management" (1920). "Health Notes" provides a variety of tips on how its readers can keep their environment clean. In another issue of the newspaper, the column advised that, "A condition of perfect health cannot be sustained unless we eat with discretion those foods which contain the essential constituents which we endeavoured in our last issue to set out with some clearness, and unless we treat our internal mechanisms with consideration and impart some variety to our diet" (1920). From housing to diet, "Health Notes" provides the readership of Umteteli Wa Bantu with tips through which they might strive for supposedly better lives.

In spite of the efforts of Umteteli Wa Bantu, the actual living conditions imagined for the execution of these "Health Notes" by Africans left much to be desired. An anonymous article published in 1924 felt the need to praise employers for creating admirable living conditions for Africans in the mining compounds. This "encouraging" article on the "Care of Natives on Gold Mines" noted that the
   biggest employers of Native labour in Africa had by far exceeded
   governmental expectations for the conditions of the mining
   compounds that house migrant laborers: "The standard compound
   consists of 40 to 48 Natives, well lighted and ventilated, with
   fixed fireplaces for heating and provided with concrete bunks
   arranged on the "cubicle" system in such a way that, while not
   interfering with ventilation, a maximum of practicable isolation is
   provided for each compound during sleep. In front of each room
   there is a reasonable amount of space where the occupants can sit
   around the fire to consume their food. (1924)

This article keeps to a strict definition of satisfactory circumstances as a matter of exceeding government stipulations. Three months after the appearance of "Care of Natives on Gold Mines", George AW Champion, writing as the President of the Transvaal Natives Mines Clerks Association, published a letter to the editor concerned with the "Mines Regulation Commission". The different tone and trajectory of Champion's letter provide a sharp critique of the silences concerning the living and working conditions of African mine workers:
   From the Johannesburg daily papers it will be found that there is a
   Commission sitting and taking evidence about the Mining
   Regulations. I believe the Commission has been taking evidence for
   a month, but no statement has been submitted to set forth the
   Native case. What has struck me is the absence of an official to
   watch the interests of mine natives. In former Commissions Natives
   had an official of the Native Affairs Department to watch their
   interests and Col. Pritchard rendered invaluable services. Many
   regrettable things have been said against the Natives;
   unfortunately no one has been in a position to report these things.
   I hope you, sir, will do the best you can to make good this
   unfortunate omission as the Commission is designed to determine the
   future relationship of Europeans and Natives working on the mines.

Champion's letter calls in question the self-congratulatory nature of the earlier article. African miners' voices, he observes, were excluded from discussion of their conditions. The claims of "Care of Natives on Gold Mines" appear to have been strategic in nature. They "gave credibility to the dominant problematic" by accepting the meagre requirements of the law as a yardstick for the measurement of successes (Hall 1982: 81). In other words, it set the precedent for the law and the mining organizations to be the unquestionable arbiters of what was good for the 'Native'. Similarly, "Health Notes" created the impression that African bodies could function in an ideally healthy way regardless of their living and working environment.


There are frequent illustrations in Umteteli Wa Bantu concentrating on the health and safety of African workers in the mines. They seek to discipline African miners into safer working habits. In Figure 1, the mine worker, advised to "Look out for your FINGERS", is ostensibly encouraged to be cognizant of every aspect of his daily life at work:
   There are risks inseparable from every calling. It's a pity, but
   there it is. Of course, sensible men try to avoid them....

   Many a man in usual and simple duties places his life and limbs and
   those of mates in peril through sheer want of ordinary care. No one
   has any right to display such indifference in the routine of his
   work as to cause injury to his fellows or, for that matter, to
   himself, but it is done almost daily. Worse than this. After
   regulations have been carefully framed for the purpose of guarding
   against personal injuries and brought under the notice of every man
   concerned, they are often flung to the four winds of heaven, and
   risks and dangers deliberately created.

   Is it any wonder that accidents happen? Of course the men judge
   that it'll be alright. In many cases it is. But sometimes it isn't.
   It's the all right cases that make men venturesome. Even narrow
   squeaks don't make them careful. Don't take chances: You can't
   afford it. (1920)

The focus is on the labourer as the primary repository of culpability; the injury is the trace that marks the perpetrator. The injured subject, devoid of moral authority to move beyond himself in a search for causes, is thrown back on self-blame. A culpable person does not have the right to claim reparation for an injury. The self-referentiality that is the intended effect of this discourse of safety inserts an interesting component into the ideological apparatus of the mines. Michel Foucault explains that "[i]t would not have been possible to solve the problems of the accumulation of men without the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining and using them; conversely, the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital" (cited in Butchart 1998: 92). What Foucault calls the "apparatus of production" in this case does not simply belong to the sphere of mechanical production. The body of the African labourer has been transformed into the only site around which questions of ethical and moral significance can be raised. The ideological function of this process is the production of a "discourse of realism" which "established an empirical-pragmatic closure in discourse" (Hall 1982: 75). In order for this to take place, the African mine worker was turned into a moral subject whose transgressions could be codified through a series of recognized effects. The "empirical-pragmatic closure" that invented this moral subject is apparent in cartoons that warned African miners against the dangers of negligence in the working environment.

Fables of death: 'Pictures without Words'

A group of African workers loiter in the mines (see Figure 2). Three of them are standing beneath a roof of rock pillared by logs. Chatting, two gesture with their hands toward the third. In the distance, another miner approaches, flanked by a pillar as well. He shouts: "Wena!" ("You!") at the group absorbed in discussion. Soon after, the group of three is buried under fallen rock. The fourth figure rushes off into the distance.



What is special about the images is their "likeness - that is, [their] ability to annex and mime what [they] represent, while, in the very fact of representation, masking the power of [their] own arbitrariness, [their] potential for opacity, simulacrum, and distortion" (Mbembe 2001: 142). In order for the readers of these cartoons to derive meaningful lessons, they are presented with the causal logic of a narrative designed for analogical transfers of scenarios and consequences to real life circumstances. What is going on in the "Pictures without Words"? A few more examples of cartoons in Umteteli Wa Bantu will help to explain.

Two miners carry a log (see Figure 3). In front is one who, bent upon fulfilling his task, walks with both hands balancing the log, facing the space that must still be travelled before the work is done. The miner behind is careless: his left arm sways from his waist and his eyes stray to the side, so that he fails to spot the rock lying beneath his feet. The image below records the consequence: while the man in front continues to hold his end of the log with both hands, it slips from the grip of the negligent miner and lands on his foot.



In Figure 4, the miner is clearly loafing. (The 'pleasures' of rest or the anxieties of work?) He is deep in thought, or resting, one arm against the side of his face, while the other is set against his lap. His foot is placed on the rail on which a tram will pass. In the image depicting the consequence, his body, on the ground, seems to have stopped the advancing tram. His arms are splayed out in front of him. He is either injured, trapped, or dead. The question mark beside the first image seems to be drawing readers' attention to the man's behaviour.

Given that African mine workers are a frequent presence in Umteteli Wa Bantu, it appears that the other scenes represented, particularly those relating to injury and death, are intended to make the African worker think through the figure of his body. It becomes, through over-representation, not simply the means by which he meets the world: the pictures foster a distinctive relation of the self to the body.

Recent scholarship on colonial film in the southern African region identifies filmic narratives as an essential part of the moralization of African labour. Glenn Reynolds (2007) and J M Burns (2002) demonstrate that colonial films in South Africa and Zimbabwe, especially those made as propaganda for the recruitment and education of African labourers, make use of narrative types that create moral dyads of African behaviour. As Reynolds explains, "In these simple plots, the 'silly native' is injured or contracts an illness due to negligence or moral failing, while the 'wise native', who has absorbed the advice of Europeans, comes to his rescue" (2007: 149). Umteteli Wa Bantu uses the same narrative types in its mine cartoons. The films that Reynolds writes about and the cartoons of Umteteli Wa Bantu share another relation: they were distributed through the capital investment of the Chamber of Mines. While films were time-consuming to make and required large amounts of capital, newspapers such as Umteteli Wa Bantu disseminated the same hegemonic narratives in less capital-intensive ways.

Instances of injury and death were recorded in the "Mine Accidents" column of Umteteli Wa Bantu. The newspaper was careful to document the accidents that took place in the mines; the column appeared in every issue. On the 19 May 1923, it reads as follows:
   We are informed of the deaths of the following Natives, as the
   result of accidents on the gold mines.

      Joels, son of Lefare, Chief of Ntsane, of Mafeteng. Killed at
   Geldenhuis Deep on May 9.

      Tsibantu, son of Mbangi, Chief Fundangaye, of Lobode. Killed at
   Geduld Propriety mines on May 13.

   The following Natives were killed as the result of a dynamite
   explosion at the British S.A. Explosives Co's Factory,

      Giyezi, son of Mampoto, Chief Ramqumba, of Sibasa. On May 7.

      Kaleni, father deceased Chief Khangi, of Pietersburg. On May 7.
   The following native was discovered near the Ferreira Deep Compound
   on May 11 with his head completely blown away. If it is a case of
   suicide, it must be presumed that Kennel placed a charge of
   dynamite in his mouth and exploded it. (1923)

The reduction of death to the bare facts of confirmation (except in the last case) in the "Mine Accidents" column creates seemingly neutral circumstances where the loss of life cannot be subjected to the meaning-making processes of narrative. Elsewhere, the narratological representation of African labourers is restricted to specific discourses that implicate them in their injury and death. The rhetoric of blame silences narratives that would otherwise unfurl an order of knowledge that relates bodies to their conditions of labour. Instead, the African mine worker is held responsible for a failure to conform to an economy of safety through self-surveillance, which can be characterized as a discourse working at "[t]he level of connotation of the visual sign ... intersect[ing] with the deep semantic codes of a culture and tak[ing] on additional, more active ideological dimensions" (Hall 1999: 513). The location of this textualization in Umteteli Wa Bantu forms a significant aspect of the cultural workings of the "dominant-hegemonic position" of racial capitalism.

The value of African lives: A meditation on law and death

Structures of dominance articulate their power in different sites and through different degrees of authority. I have argued that this has implications for the way in which the roles of those denied the rights of citizenship come to be represented in narrative discourse. In the examples of Umteteli Wa Bantu that I have examined, it is not simply narrative but also the strategic evasion of narrative that requires us to think through the significance of representation. The law provides an important vantage point from which to perceive the epistemological registers through which disenfranchised subjects were compelled to think of the utility of their bodies. If, as Mary Frances Berry argues, "[w]hose story counts in legal decisions rests heavily on who controls political and economic power, in a process that is circular and progressive" (quoted in Davis 2003: 15), then we can think of narrative as marked by the traces of the law, which is to say, by a sense of who counts and who doesn't. The columns that I have looked at in Umteteli Wa Bantu show how race and capitalism merged into a formation of legal and discursive power. They also suggest a spatial and temporal dimension that makes death an event through which the meaning attributed to life becomes apparent.

In a secular sense, death is an end that marks the exhaustion of intended action, orientation towards the world and others, and even pain. In short, it is the end of subjectivity. When related to labour as the process through which bodies are commodified to produce work, death acquires socially and economically potent meanings. The law also becomes a central arbitrator in these 'post-life' interventions. The transition to modern capitalist systems made it common that in instances where a life ended with "tragic collisions", the "damages [are] shared with the family of the victim, and instead of the value of the personal object (the chattel) responsible, what was now at stake was the value of a human life, which would eventually be based on a calculation of the individual's projected future earnings" (Ralph 2009: 80-1). As one might expect, the overdetermining factor of race in South Africa made it an implausible assumption that, from this vantage, an African life had a universal meaning. In 1920, two white brothers murdered an African boy and were "fined fifty and twenty-five pounds respectively for a 'common assault'" (Umteteli Wa Bantu 1928). Provoked by these events, an editorial in Umteteli Wa Bantu felt it "necessary to ask", without the prospect of an encouraging answer, "what is the value put on the life of a Native by. Europeans" in a country in whose legal history only "once ha[d] a white man been put to death for the killing of a Native" (1928). These reflections help us to re-enter the terrain of the mines which, in addition to being the leading work-place of Africans at the time, also contributed not insignificantly to their deaths. The economics of death are a significant locus for meditating upon the value of life. For instance, Samuel Masabalala, inspired by the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union and the 1920s strikes, agitated for a wage increase in Bloemfontein later in that year. He was arrested for threatening to call a strike. When demonstrators gathered at the police station where he was held to protest against his arrest, the police fired at the crowd, killing numerous people (Allen 1992: 300-1). The commission that inquired into the incident, having judged that the shooting was not justified, paid 81.45% of its compensation to victims who were white (three had been killed and 12 injured); 71.3% of what remained was distributed among the dependants of Coloured people (one was killed and two were injured), and only 5.3% of the original sum was paid out to dependants of the 20 dead and 112 injured Africans. As V L Allen concludes, "African deaths were cheap" (1992: 301) in the eyes of the white law.

The rituals of mourning and burial after death make ending and closure complex gestures, inflected with deep interpersonal meanings. During the early years of the Union of South Africa, nothing seemed more difficult than the claiming of dead African mine workers by their kin. And though in some cases money could be sent home in the event of a miner's death, the fact remained that "a man who died at work was buried in the mine cemetery" (Plaatje 1982[1916]: 267).

The African mine worker, as Plaatje observed at the beginning of this article, occupied a terrain that, socially and philosophically, was inundated with criminality. If, as Foucault argues, the body of the criminal is that which is deprived of the "individual liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property", then what becomes apparent with African mineworkers is that the legal strictures bearing on their personal and working lives are animated by a similar "system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions" (1979: 11). The body ofthe African mineworker, having been prevented from making demands beyond those that revolve around a strict regime of self-discipline and labour, is restricted to "expressions of respect for the established order [that] serve to create around the exploited person an atmosphere of submission and of inhibition which lightens the task of policing considerably" (Fanon 2001: 29). Alternatively, the authorities were legally entitled to call upon the police to exercise their powers of containment and coercion. And sometimes the degree of force unleashed proved lethal. (2)


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(1.) In his Orientalism, Said (1994: 9-11) begins his discussion of "political knowledge" by writing as follows: "What I am interested in doing ... is suggesting that the general liberal consensus that "true" knowledge is fundamentally non-political (and conversely, that political knowledge is not 'true' knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced".

(2.) See Stuart Hall (1999).

(3.) I would like to thank the following people, whose input and critical eye helped to make this a much better article than it would otherwise have been. Professor Thadious Davis's seminar on race, law and literature provided numerous insights and provocations for thinking about the intersections of law and literature. Professor Tanji Gilliam, Professor Tsitsi Jaji, Professor Rita Barnard and Mukti Mangharam contributed invaluable insights while I was in the process of rethinking and rewriting the article.
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Author:Mkhize, Khwezi
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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