Carlos Amato is a political cartoonist. Carlos will produce a graphic novella – about 20 pages long – focused on the life of informal miners in Gauteng. It will attempt to at once document and dramatise their experience, using a fictional form to explore the realities of survival beyond the edge of the law and the edge of the city. The novella will give the reader the narrative view of a recent migrant to Johannesburg from a rural area of South Africa – a young man with few connections and no prospects in the city. He is introduced to the world of the zama-zamas by or relative, and becomes one himself. The novella will attempt to create a dramatic but textually accurate narrative of the zama-zamas‘ experience – physical, mental and emotional. It will try to counter the luridly sensationalist accounts of informal mining – emphasizing violence and desperate criminality – that dominate media coverage of the subject.
MA student Esther V. Kraler talked to Carlos Amato about the message of his upcoming graphic novella, his collaborative process with zama-zamas (artisanal small-scale miners), and the challenges in creating a fictional piece based on people’s life experiences. Click here to listen.
To begin the interview, I would like to know why you chose to focus on migration and society in your work now – and more specifically, why you want to look at informal miners’ experiences in Gauteng.
Migration, I suppose, is such an urgent topic everywhere right now that politics is increasingly defined by migration and its meanings. So that in itself was a reason to take on this project. But specifically the experience of zama-zamas was intriguing to me because a), it’s dramatic and exciting, full of fear and danger which is a storyteller’s dream – visually speaking and dramatically speaking. But also because the informal miners’ experience has not been fully reflected in the national conversation or the media for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because they are presented in the media and by the authorities as criminals and therefore their understanding of what they do is not seen as a valid voice. And secondly, because they themselves need to keep things to themselves in order not to be victimised by the authorities. So, there are two silences. One created by the zama-zamas themselves and one created by the establishment and the mining companies and the police and the media who struggle to get access to the zama-zamas’ stories. It will be fascinating to use a graphic novel as a way of getting that story and I think that is part of my job.
Why is it important for you to share these stories or to unpack this silence?
Because they are fascinating people, they are dealing with an incredibly difficult life and work. And generally speaking they have no other options. They are often undocumented, therefore unable to get formal work. They are an incredible story, just for that reason. They are one of those types of people that you see all over the world who live at the edges of society and have to survive at the margin.
To look a bit closer at the zama-zamas’ role [in the project]. What do you think are their motivations for sharing their stories? And first of all, how did you approach them?
I have a contact who is helping me to meet with zama-zamas and she translates a bit and advises and takes me to meet them and vouches for me. So in a way that helps to create a level of trust and I think their motivation at the moment is to get their story across, to try and dispel some of the myths about them. I think it’s therapeutic and important without exposing themselves to tell their story. Whether or not my art work will reflect their impulse to tell the story accurately is another question, but certainly the act of talking does seem to be something they appreciate.
So, how does the collaboration with zama-zamas look like? How do you gather information? What is your relationship with them? How often and where do you meet?
It is just in process, so we’ve only had one proper interview to date but I am hoping to be able to bring drafts to future interviews and meetings so that they can see what I am doing concretely and also advise and have comments and perhaps get involved in a kind of creative way. That would be interesting.
Related to the relationship with zama-zamas, do you ever feel that there is a power dynamic of you taking a story from their lives? Since you are creating a piece about something that is not your own experience. How do you think using graphic means is increasing or decreasing this possible hierarchy?
That’s a very interesting question because I am not a journalist or a researcher or an academic or not doing advocacy or activism. It’s something distinct which is a creative project which is inspired or informed by a real source or a real story. So, the lines are blurrier than they normally are and there definitely is an inevitable and necessary power dynamic for a fine art project in which, in order to create something which is art – or even not fine art, just graphic art or just comic art – you have to make decisions which in a way override the authority of your source or your subjects. In particular, because it’s a fictional piece, so I am not actually claiming to represent their particular experience. But I am using that as an inspiration for a fictional interpretation. But I am constantly aware of – during conversations with them and during the creative process – how my own preconceptions are shaping that conversation and shaping the possible outcome of the project.
So, for example, they are expressing ideas about the metaphysical ideas about the nature of fate underground and accidents and superstitious understandings of what might happen if you do this or don’t do this. I need to guide against my own judgments of that because I haven’t been underground, I don’t know what they have experienced and what they know or what they can tell me that I need to accept. That’s one of the ways in which the power dynamic needs to be worked out, is what do I understand to be their authoritative telling of the story and what do I understand to be my own interpretation and how do I negotiate that. So, that’s one of the things.
To close off, I would like to ask you what you want your graphic novella to contribute to in society. What do you want people to take from it?
I hope in some way that it will contribute to the conversation about informal mining and what it means and what it should mean and what the law should do and what should happen in the future.
I think it’s a fascinating subject because of the mystery involved in it. But also it does seem to be a recurrence of a very old African profession as well. Because artisanal mining or mining in general happened before colonialism and happened right here in this part of the world. In southern Jo’burg there was a huge Sotho settlement that mined and smelted iron. So in a way what informal miners are doing is kind of reclaiming a heritage of mining and metallurgy that is ancient and for that reason it’s something that should be respected and de-demonised, as it were.
About the author: Esther V. Kraler is an MA student in Ethnic and Migration Studies at Linköping University. She completed her BA in Transcultural Communication at the University of Vienna. With her work, Esther wants to tackle the unspoken, to shed light on how who we are and what we do is influenced by structural and personal realities and to support alternative possibilities of knowing/being/feeling in the world. She is currently an exchange student at ACMS, and is also a maHp intern.