How not to draw a comic book about zama-zamas

By maHp Artist Fellow Carlos Amato

I’ve always believed in the right of all artists to go anywhere with their work. To claim any space, to assume any persona, to appropriate and borrow from any culture. To do anything, essentially, aside from plagiarism or hate speech. Because I believe that (self-)censorship and caution are all part of a spectrum of inhibition – a spectrum that is anathema to the basic creative impulse, not least for us political cartoonists, whose work is all about transgression and audacity.

And I still believe that. But in the last few months, my convictions about creative freedom have started to buckle under pressure. I have doubted my prerogative to draw another world.

Several months ago, I applied for an art fellowship launched by the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, which called for creative projects on the themes of migration and health. My proposal was for a short graphic novel, 20 pages long, about zama-zamas – the illegal or artisanal miners who work the abandoned gold mine shafts of Gauteng and North West Province.

My proposal was to make a fictional narrative, about a young man arriving in Jo’burg from a rural backwater in search of work, who finds his way into the sunless, deadly world below the city’s southern edge.

As I envisaged it, the comic would offer a window into the hidden world of the zama-zamas, thus helping to counter the myth that they are violent and reckless criminals. It would also draw on a rich trope in South African literature and film: of the rural naif entering the dark and transformative maw of the metropolis.

A couple of months later, I was thrilled to hear that I had been awarded a fellowship. So I got stuck in. With the help of an intermediary, I interviewed three Zimbabwean zama-zamas in a KFC restaurant in Krugersdorp: an experienced miner and his young assistant, and a woman who processes their ore above ground, all three part of a small syndicate. They told me about the precarious economics of artisanal mining, about their techniques for extracting and moving ore, about their beliefs in mystical forces that lurk underground. They told me about the conflicts between rival ethnic groups of immigrant miners. They told me about the miners’ battles with the security guards they hire, and with the police who arrest or harass or rob them.

Those interviews, along with a range of media reports and academic writings about zama-zamas, gave me enough material to imagine a story. But every time I returned to the project of creating the protagonist, I hit a wall. Firstly, there was the glaring chasm between my daily reality, perched in an airy studio in Linden with a view of the Jo’burg CBD skyline, and the daily reality of my character, toiling in hellish tunnels far below that skyline. And everything I had heard from my sources pointed me toward everything I had NOT heard from them: the elusive inner world that brings a character to life.

These limits to my knowledge kept returning me to a state of angsty paralysis about my position. Was I entitled to filter and aestheticise their intensely precarious existence? The thought of doing so felt frivolous and exploitative – despite my supposed belief in artistic freedom. And if I was indeed not entitled to aestheticise a desperate struggle, then how much more knowledge would somehow entitle me? Would I need to literally go down a shaft with the zama-zamas? They wouldn’t want me down there, and the feeling was mutual. I’m not an underground cartoonist.

Factor in my family’s newborn second baby, who arrived in our home one month into the fellowship, and the weekly rollercoaster of my editorial cartooning routine, and I was well and truly blocked.

But in the last week, I have made two decisions that present a way forward:

– I have accepted that the anxiety I have felt is normal and shared by almost everyone who writes or makes art about unimaginable struggles they haven’t experienced. It doesn’t mean that such a task is wrong or shouldn’t be undertaken.
– I must return to my experience as a reporter in creating this piece. So the comic book will not be a fictional narrative, but instead a piece of graphic journalism about the crisis of the zama-zamas, mixing text and drawings. It will be aimed at young readers, seeking to give them a sense of how and why zama-zamas do their work. The comic book will also ask how artisanal mining could be legalised, regulated and made safe. It will gather and present objective information, and not seek to enter a distant subjectivity that I am not equipped to enter.

I hope it will work. Wish me luck.

About the author: 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.