Dying for Gold Documentary Confronts South Africa's Gold Mining History
by Sam Kolesnik
“I took the cents because I had no choice,” says Zwelindaba Mgidi. He’s referring to the meager payment he received from his employer after becoming seriously ill from decades of work in South African gold mines. As he speaks, his face appears pained, his breath laborious. The causes of his debilitation are tuberculosis and silicosis, both potentially fatal diseases. It’s a visceral interview which ends with Mgidi saying, “Just as I’m talking right now, I get tired.” It sounds like he can’t catch his breath as he says it.
This is just one of several gut-wrenchingly sorrowful interviews with miners and their families in Dying for Gold, a documentary by Catherine Meyburgh and Richard Pakleppa. Interweaved with the interviews is archival footage spanning over a century of gold mining, including clips of gold mine recruitment films and transcripts from the South African Chamber of Mines.
The archival footage excerpted in Dying for Gold shows a history in gold mining of exploitation, racism and colonialism. Directors Meyburgh and Pakleppa astutely intertwine the past and present to allow us to connect the dots between forces compelling men to work in the mines and the harrowing aftermath.
Dying for Gold hones in on the history of mining’s exploitative recruitment efforts in southern Africa. Archival transcripts are read aloud in increments, detailing how the Chamber of Mines considered a low-paid labor force as vital to maintaining their own profits in the industry. When not enough men from the villages were signing up to be miners, it was suggested in one transcript that their land taxes be increased to force them to need the mines’ employment. In another transcript, a drought impacting villagers’ farmland is seen as a good thing for mine recruitment efforts. The transcripts from the Chamber of Mines take on a dehumanizing tone as they refer to and treat black southern Africans as a commodity first and foremost.
There’s a striking disparity between the hypercapitalist, profit-at-all-cost archival footage and the emotional, heartbreaking interviews with those who suffer in gold mining’s wake.
Dying for Gold makes it clear that gold mining’s system of exploitation impacts whole generations of families. When a miner becomes sick with silicosis or tuberculosis, he is often deemed unable to work and is sent home by his employer. Often, sons will replace their fathers in the mine, potentially exposing themselves to the same fate as their debilitated or deceased fathers. Many widows are left without a way to survive and are then forced to a lifetime of severe economic hardship. Dying for Gold shows these far-reaching effects in close-up interviews at the families’ homes.
Meyburgh and Pakleppa meaningfully tie the documentary together with a message conferring blame to all who stand to benefit or profit from such a system of exploitation. It’s a message that triggers audience introspection -- a moment to reflect upon our own consumption habits and their far-reaching ripple effects. Dying for Gold is an important, eye-opening documentary which pulls back the curtain and reveals all of the ugly truths about the South African gold mining industry.
Catherine Meyburgh and Richard Pakleppa haven’t just made a documentary with Dying for Gold. They are also calling people to action. Dying for Gold’s website has information on the Justice for Miners campaign where individuals can lend their voice to a campaign effort for just compensation, just administration and legal reform in South Africa.