Homosexuality on South African Gold Mines
A close look at the culture of homosexuality throughout South African gold mines demonstrates the ways in which Black South African gold miners conceptualize gender and masculinity and how these notions guide their behaviors in everyday relationships.
The largest gold resources in the world were found in South Africa. The capital of South Africa is Johannesburg, whose other name, "Egoli" means City of Gold. Yet the discovery of this coveted natural resource did not translate into wealth for the nation; rather, South Africa became a victim of exploitation from persons outside of the country. Using strategies of manipulation and brute force, many European companies usurped control of the mines from the South African government and ensured a constant supply of workers by establishing their own labor force. Typically, gold miners were under contract for six to 12 months and up to two years to work on the mines. Miners often migrated from rural areas, which were usually very far from the mines. Thus, executives from the gold mining organizations provided housing to the miners for rent.
CULTURE OF HOMOSEXUALITY ON SOUTH AFRICAN GOLD MINES
During the time period of their contracts, miners lead an alternative lifestyle, which was far different from their hometowns in the rural areas of South Africa. Gold miners pursued same sex relationships. The book, “Migrancy and Male Sexuality on the South African Gold Mines” by T.Dunbar Moodie, Vivienne Ndatshe, and British Sibuyi, suggests that “…'homosexual’ activity on the mines seems to take place almost exclusively between senior men (men with power in the mine structure) and young boys.” These young men were referred to as the “mine wives” of the miners. Miners (senior men) and their “boy” maintained same sex relationships called “mine marriages” known as Hlobongo (between man and man), in the Zulu language.
“There were boss boys who liked boys. I did that once myself. There were boys who looked like women-fat and attractive”
-excerpt of miner interview with Ndatshe
In describing the social construction of mine marriages, Moodie further writes, “These young ‘boys’ of the miners are not merely sexual partners, but are also ‘wives’ in other ways, providing domestic services for their husbands.” While the miner was working, the “boy” would perform the same duties that are traditionally expected of a married woman in Zulu society. The development of these relationships was more than a matter of convenience, as many miners would go to great lengths to preserve the mine marriages despite the literal contraints of their contractual labor. Some mine workers actually extended their contracts just to spend more time with their "mine wives."
The benefits gained from these mine marriages were not unilateral; the "mine wives" also received benefits as well. Many young men willingly participated in these relationships because of the potential for monetary gain. In exchange for being submissive to the senior miner’s wants and needs, the miners would often give their "mine wives" money, and purchase clothes, recreational toys, and other goods for them. Participation in a mine marriage was also motivated by fear in many cases; young miners would engage in these relationships because they feared the possibility of physical harm from the senior miners.
Despite the prominence of the mine marriages throughout the mines, the miners still made a considerable effort to conceal their alternative lifestyle from their families and native communities. Yet there were many cases in which the miners became so attached to their mine wives that communication with their female partners back home ceased - they stopped sending money, and no longer called. This practice quite prevalent and a term was even developed to describe this practice; men who no longer communicated with their wives and girlfriends were called tshipa.