Sacrificing lungs to the South African mining in-dust-ry
Helen Macdonald (University of Cape Town)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores the key organising metaphor of 'dust', that is used by South African miners to understand Tuberculosis less in terms of bacterial infection and more in terms of dusty conditions of life underground, as a form of slow violence.
Paper long abstract:
South African miners have among the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world—four to seven times higher than the general population of South Africa. Most gold miners work at depths up to 3500m and are constantly exposed to silica dust as they blast through and drill into the hard rock. It is against this background, I explore ideas about dust and tuberculosis from the perspective of South African miners. Despite definitions of dust as a "fine, dry powder" that consists "of tiny particles of earth or waste matter lying on the ground, on surfaces or carried in the air", dust has far more pervasive, socially embedded meanings. Metaphors of dust are widespread throughout the English language, yet its social and 'cultural' significance remains largely unexplored. Scholarship reveals a focus on scientific studies centred on technology to control dust and its adverse effects on the health of mine workers, while information regarding socially and 'culturally' specific understandings of dust particularly within the mining sector is sparse. Using ethnographic methods, I explore the key organising metaphors—'dust', 'my TB' and 'we are like bubble gum'—used by miners to understand TB in relation to infection and the impact it has on their lives. I argue that miners understand TB less in terms of bacterial infection and more in terms of dusty conditions of life underground, as a form of slow violence. Their concept of 'dust' demonstrates that there is an inter-relationship between tuberculosis and dusty working environments.
Adding to the Air