Friday, July 06, 2012


south africa is such an interesting place. things happen here that surely can't happen anywhere else in the world. take illegal mining in barberton for example.

barberton has some of the oldest deep gold mines in the country, maybe even the world. the gold rush in barberton happened long before gold was even discovered in johannesburg. of course the massive amounts of gold in johannesburg drew all the prospectors away and left barberton as a tiny, insignificant lowveld town with ghost mines. as time went on, it once again became financially worthwhile for the mines to be opened, although really only on a much smaller level. but once it became clear that there was still gold in the mines, the illegal miners were born.

it is difficult to fully understand what an illegal miner is. imagine people going down air vents and other such unmapped openings into deep underground labyrinths of once sprawling mines where they apparently stay for up to a month or two at a time illegally. they work mainly at night when the legitimate miners are no longer there and melt into the many unchartered tunnels during the day. being south africa, of course the propensity for violence is always there, so, when you put together your mental picture, add quite a number of ak47 assault rifles smuggled in from neighbouring mozambique.

so of course when the people in power  decided to rid their mines of illegals, it wasn't going to be enough to simply leave pamphlets lying around asking them to please leave. they decided force might be a more traditionally south african option. fortunately after our bush wars in namibia and angola we have an abundance of highly trained soldiers so to find hired guns is no problem at all. and in the end, that is what the mine executives did. they hired guns.

i was on call the night the barberton hospital phoned. they apparently had a gunshot patient shot with an assault rifle they wanted to send to me. it was different from the normal 9mm wounds i was used to seeing so i was frankly quite keen to accept the patient no matter what the injuries. it was going to be exciting, i thought, except of course a head injury. then the doctor said something even more left of the ordinary.

"bongi, they are going to bring him in themselves. it will take too long to wait for an ambulance." i was confused. who were the they he was referring to that were going to bring him in? how were they going to bring him in? was he going to be dead when they brought him in? these thoughts slowly migrated through my mind on their way to my mouth but before i could ask, my colleague had put the phone down. i was left with almost no idea of what to expect, but i at least knew it was going to be interesting.

half an hour later i was waiting at the entrance to casualties in true grey's anatomy style. for a split second i even felt more like an actor than a surgeon and nearly went back inside. but in the end my curiosity got the better of me and there i stood like the leading part in a hollywood production in the warm lowveld night waiting for something that i somehow knew was going to be out of the ordinary.

they arrived. it was out of the ordinary. a bakkie roared into the hospital parking area, apparently totally oblivious of the speed humps in its way. it came to a skidding halt just in front of me. immediately the driver got out and moved around to the back. his most striking feature was the r4 assault rifle strung over his shoulder, but it was only fractionally more striking than the rest of the man. he wasn't a particularly tall man, but he was well built. he wore black leather clothes, contrasted sharply with a dirty red bandana tied around his head. on his belt he had about four magazines for his rifle. quite clearly he was ready for quite a fight. then i noticed his face. it was calm and very nearly devoid of expression.

suddenly i noticed a second man standing on the back of the bakkie. he too was dressed like an action hero out of a low budget eighties movie, complete with assault rifle at his side and once again his face was without discernible expression. they reached down to lift something. only then, only when i heard the soft groan of pain, did i realize that the gunshot guy was lying on the back of the bakkie and this had been the they that were going to transport him. immediately i knew they must be the hired guns to flush the illegals out of the mines. there was ordinary and then there were these guys who were definitely out of it. i was intrigued.

they lifted the injured man and started carrying him to the doors.  they did glance at me as they went past but to them i think i looked too much like a tv doctor waiting outside to be taken too seriously. i scurried in after them, feeling somewhat sheepish.

the patient was in a fairly good condition for someone who had taken an ak47 round somewhere deep in the bowels of the earth and then been transported by rambo and sons over the mountain to our humble hospital, although he had quite obviously taken fashion advice from chuck norris.  i quickly rushed through the preliminary steps  to prepare the him for theater. then i went outside to speak to his colleagues, for quite clearly that is what they were.

"i'm doctor bongi. i'll be looking after your friend" probably the wrong choice of word, seeing as though i still had seen no display of emotion from any one of these guys, except possibly stoic resignation in my patient. "i think he will be ok." even this didn't move them. they looked exactly the same as they did when they still thought their colleague was sure to be dead by the morning. "tough crowd" i  mumbled to myself.

then i spent a bit of time trying to find out what had happened. i quickly understood their facial expressions.

they were part of a team hired to flush the illegal miners out. the plan was to go down the official shaft after all the legitimate miners had knocked off. then they were to push the illegals back and drive them out through the numerous secret tunnels that only they knew about. the only problem was this was day two of operations, so the illegals were expecting them. i put it together in my mind. a small group was going to go down in a lift into a mine full of armed criminals who knew exactly where they would be arriving.

"you went down in a lift into a war zone?"

"yes." expressionless.

"but they knew where you were going to get out. all they needed to do was wait for you at the lift."


"yet you still did it?"

"yes." still no sign of anything close to emotion.


"it's our job." did i detect the slightest hint of pride? no. it was probably the outside light reflecting off the wall giving a certain glint to his eyes.

"so what happened?"

"they were waiting for us. when the lift doors opened, they opened fire and hit our friend." i though he was using the word friend in a very broad definition of the word because i was fairly convinced the only interest he had in the survival or otherwise of my patient had more to do with who would they get to replace him when they went down the lift the next night.

"and once they had opened fire, how is it that you guys survived?"

"we fought our way out." at this stage the total lack of any expression on their faces was expected, but still i didn't expect it. it seemed to me that someone who goes into a death trap, sees his 'friend' get shot and then fights his way out to survival should maybe at least have the hint of something in his face at least resembling human expression or emotion.

i operated their colleague. i dissociated myself from his humanity, cut him open and got the job done. and then i realized. in so many senses, i too go down the lift into the dark depths of the earth full of people only out to see my demise. i too put myself in harm's way for some greater benefit and i too face trauma, albeit not my likely death. then i understood their blunted emotions. they were not too different from a surgeon.


Ruth said...

Thank you for giving us a glimpse of life where you are. It seems so far away and yet parallels can be drawn to what happens where I am. It seems to be a constant battle to try to understand what's happening in the world, and then I realize how alike we are to others. There are so many commonalities if we would only see them.

Jabulani said...

Interesting analogy. Great post.

Dr Guinevere said...


Wreckless Euroafrican said...

Great post - unfortunately the reality is that today you would see many, many of those emotionless faces. A legacy to our past. Those of us in our 50's were trained for just that, and it's now just the way we are.
Thank you for your honest view, opinion, and nonjudgmental acceptance.

Tony Park said...

Excellent stuff. I could use that in a book. Wait a minute, I think I already have! I heard the same story from the manager of the mine in question, so it's excellent to read it told from yours. You really have to write that book, Bongi.

Bongi said...

tony, you inspired this one, as you know from our brief conversation in skukuza. i have another miner story that i might just post too. how much time do i have before your book comes out?