It is Sunday afternoon, and Thabiso the pastor has shed his dog collar and white tunic. Now he is smart and formal. Black, pleated cotton pants with a slim belt; a pressed, collared shirt, blue as the clear Lesotho sky, the buttons pulling taught just a fraction over his belly.
Fit and handsome, he looks much younger than his near half-century innings.
The bedroom is so universally that of a married couple, it could be in just about any home, anywhere. A dusty pink duvet cover with darker embroidered flowers the colour of rosé (definitely a purchase of his wife); a wire shoe rack with his buckle-up brown sandals alongside her white slip-ons; the slender dressing table mirror reflecting a Swallows vs Baroka FC game being thrashed out on some or other field, on SABC 1, the score still nil-all; store-bought cupboards lining the wall in mock beech with high-gloss trimmings and tidy brass-coloured handles hooped out of the doors and drawers; a white curtain lets a bit of late-afternoon sun in through its floral design.
This room may be his home, but it is not where Thabiso lives. He has piled two rough-and-tumble pillars of clothes on the bed and starts folding each item into a bag, which turns out to be little more than a laptop case, retooled as the traveller’s tog.
He could be packing for a weekend escape, so small is his luggage, rather than for a full month away from home – although he does have some clothes in a locker back on the mines, he says.
He folds each item, neatly and unhurried: pleated chinos; faded jeans; a golf shirt, black with white stripes; a white T-shirt with thin double black stripes; a black sports jacket; a white peaked cap. There is a beige corduroy jacket on the bed next to the case. He will be wearing that later tonight for his four-and-a- half hour taxi ride back to the Reef.
Twenty-four hours from now, he will be on the mines again, getting ready to pull those grimy overalls back on and head down into the pit of Hades to prepare ancient rock walls to be blasted to smithereens so that their flecks of gold metal can be melted out and slipped over rich people’s wrists, collarbones and finger knuckles, through their ear lobes, into the weave of ties and through shirt cuffs.
And even though he will send half his wage home every month, even though the benefits will be felt beyond the limits of his immediate family, they are still all caught up in the kind of poverty that drives migration across the region. ‘Migration is a livelihood strategy of the poor. Remittances in cash and kind keep poverty at bay but they do not do much else.
There is very little evidence, as yet, that remittances in Southern Africa have developmental value, as conventionally defined. Equally, they are critical for poverty alleviation in many households,’ the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) states in a 2006 report. Their last dinner together, on the final evening of Thabiso’s annual leave, is a quiet affair.
Nine people over nine disparate plastic, porcelain and glass plates, chairs pulled in around the melamine-topped kitchen table, hardly a word passing between them after they have said grace. But there is plenty of eye contact, the odd beaming smile. Without fail, they all leave the slender chicken pieces for last, working first through the ample mound of white rice, the pasta-and-pepper gravy, the pumpkin, the potatoes.
The plates are piled high, but the colour is mostly white, or shades thereof. A squint-eyed ginger tomcat prowls beneath their feet, wailing his heated demands until someone slips him the stripped-down knobkerrie-like femur of a chicken that, just 48 hours ago, pecked at mealie seeds out in the yard.
There are no histrionics when it is time for Thabiso to leave. They have done this a million times before. Thabiso’s case stands upright and straining slightly on the cleared kitchen table. Mamello pushes one last pair of balled-up socks into it. His firstborn is maternal in her clucking around him, spooning some leftovers into a plastic lunchbox for him to take with him; tearing off a lump of the steamed bread, knotting it inside the OK shopping bag.
This is padkos (food for the road) for the long trek to Carltonville. Each of his girls comes over for a goodbye kiss. Refiloe rolls back into hunched-up shoulders and clutches her hands beneath her chin, her cheek dimpling under the force of a shy smile. Mamello is more self-assured in the final gesture of affection. Pheello is hanging back somewhere, probably outside in the dark, waiting to see his father off.
The kitchen’s overhead light throws Mapheello’s cheeks into deep shadows as she smiles and kisses her husband one last time. It is a demure brushing of the lips. The mood is quite different from how it will be tomorrow when, in the depth of Monday morning, she will sit alone in her lounge and admit how hard it can be when he is not here.
‘Sometimes it’s difficult because I miss him,’ she will say. But for now it is all smiles and subdued laughter as they bustle him out the door and off to the border, a geopolitical line that has probably become invisible to him now, after all these years of crossing it. And then, he is gone. Again.
The following morning, through the hours of talking about being the wife of a miner, Mapheello melts slowly into her chair, slumping under the strain of self-reflection. Eventually she pauses and, when she is given an opportunity, she considers something. ‘Yes, there’s something I’d like to know,’ she says in rolling seSotho. ‘After this, will these stories change what happens on the mines?’
The mood becomes thick and moribund. Like so many of the people of southern Africa who get drawn into the mines, her lot in life – indeed, the lot of her husband, her children, their extended family, the neighbours – all of them are inexorably linked to the buried yellow, copper and silver seams that shoot through the strata beneath South Africa’s surface, and the shafts and tunnels that have chased these precious metals down for the past century.
South Africa’s economy is built on the sweating, bent-with- fatigue backs of mineworkers like Thabiso, whose only fault was to be born on the wrong side of the poverty gap. Will the telling of this story change anything on the mines? No, is the answer she gets in return. No, regrettably it will not.By Leonie Joubert