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Di Gopo Tsa Merafong

Piet Tohlang Khabo

Interlocutor: Phokeng Setai

Piet Tohlang Khabo

Interlocutor: Phokeng Setai


The theme of this exhibition draws inspiration from the Sesotho word, "Tema." "Tema" refers to work that is continuous, never finished, and always open for interpretation. The word holds multiple meanings: it can describe the process of preparing the earth to grow crops or relate to the food harvested. Similarly, "litema" (pronounced "ditema") stems from "holema," which also means to cultivate the land for farming. However, "litema" has a different connotation than "Tema." "Litema" describes a genre of Basotho muralist art involving engraving, mosaics, and applied relief elements on the facades of Basotho houses. At the core of both notions of "tema" is a utilitarian concept of work—not purely made for aesthetic purposes, like in Western art, but work that sustains people and transforms their environments, shaping culture (Bogues, 2019).


Artist Piet Tohlang Khabo is particularly interested in the concept of "Tema" as it relates to Basotho culture and the land of its people. While these ideas are familiar, Basotho culture and land remain broad theoretical concepts. One can have a general understanding of these concepts and their inherent relationship. However, to gain a more nuanced understanding, it is essential to situate these concepts within the material structures and historical processes of society (Maloka, 1995). The South African industrial mining complex, which began with the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand in 1886 and is known as one of the most significant gold discoveries in history, serves as the socio-historical context for this exhibition. This moment marked the beginning of the expansion of the colonial project in Southern Africa and is pivotal in the making of modern-day South Africa.


The ensuing mineral revolution attracted a wave of European migrants to South Africa and other parts of Southern Africa in the early 20th century. Johannesburg, the capital of modern-day Gauteng (formerly the Transvaal colony), mushroomed from this massive labour migration catalysed by the gold rush. The influx of European settlers increased Johannesburg’s population of white inhabitants. Between 1895 and 1898, there was a net outward migration of tens of thousands of United Kingdom citizens to South African ports due to economic expansion generated by the gold fields (Richardson and Van Helten, 1984). This migration was met by an equally notable inflow of Black African labour migrants from several countries in Southern Africa and South Africa itself, to supply labour in the mines (Harington, McGlashan, and Chelkowska, 2004).


Lesotho, more than any other Southern African country, has historically depended on exporting labour to South African mines (Maloka, 1995). Half of the nation's GDP in the 20th century came from remittances from absent miners. Young Basotho men grew up confident of earning money and supporting their families by working in the mines. Villages in Lesotho had populations markedly short in adult males due to this labour migration (Harington, McGlashan, and Chelkowska, 2004). The mines also generated other modalities of work in and around the social economy of the gold reef, including illicit activities such as beer brewing, prostitution, and gangsterism. Women, either the wives or mistresses of the miners, mostly dominated the vocations of beer brewing, selling alcohol and sex work. A notorious Basotho gang called Marashea gained a strong foothold in the mines towards the middle of the 20th century. This gang, initiated by male adult Basotho migrants working in South Africa, aimed to protect migrant Basotho in South African mines and cities, thus fulfilling a need that did not exist in Lesotho (Kynoch, 2005). 


Contemporary Issues


In recent decades, there has been a decline in the South African mining industry’s capacity to produce gold. The trough in gold prices from the 1990s to the early 2000s led many companies to abandon operations without properly closing shafts (Olalde, 2017). This generated an opportunity for illegal mining activity, which today has become an epidemic in South Africa. According to the Chamber of Mines, illegal mining brought in roughly R450 million between 1999 and 2004, and was valued at more than 7 billion in 2016 (Olalde, 2017). "Zama-zamas" is the term used to refer to illegal miners who risk their lives by descending into both abandoned and operational mines (Thelwell, 2014). Every day, Zama-zamas descend more than 500 metres into the subterranean web of shafts using makeshift technology to navigate constricted tunnels. These miners drill at the dense rock in dark, oppressively hot, and claustrophobic conditions in pursuit of gold (Hart, 2013). Zama-zamas can spend three to five days underground, with some living there for months, surviving on food, tobacco, snuff, and alcohol sold in these underground metropolises.


"Di gopo tsa merafong" (Belly of the Beast) sets the scene inside a makeshift mineshaft. Inside the structure, poles symbolically allude to power lines, street, and road signs, commenting on the journeys traveled by Basotho labour migrants to work in the mines. The installation includes objects such as melamu (fighting sticks), rubble bags, and other matter, part of the material culture of Basotho, particularly those working in the mines. By reimagining the setting of a Zama-zama mineshaft, this installation seeks to foreground the life experiences of marginalized miners. The precarity of the miners' lives draws us into this world, represented in the makeshift and DIY configuration of the structure and the perilous manner in which the installation forces bodies to negotiate their movement inside the space. Titled "Di gopo tsa merafong" or "Belly of the Beast" in English, this installation foregrounds a conversation about how labour and land are used as tools of cultural and political world-building. It could be a miner drilling away at the hard rock surfaces in the earth's recesses or an artist spending copious hours in a studio. Both conditions, in this current political climate, are fundamentally tied to the system of neoliberal capitalism, which determines how people live out their relationship with the spaces they inhabit, the work they produce in these places and the value placed in this work.


Text by: Phokeng Setai


Works cited:

Bogues, A. 2022. An art for whom? The public art of Any Given Sunday in post-apartheid South Africa. Mail & Guardian, January 21 - 27, 10 - 11.


Harington, J. S., McGlashan, N. D., and Chelkowska, E. Z. (2004). A century of migrant labour in the gold mines of South Africa. Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, 104(2), pp. 65-71.


Hart, M. (2013). Gold: the race for the world’s most seductive metal. New York, United States of America: Simon & Schuster.


Kynock, G. (2005). We are fighting the world: a history of the marashea gangs in South Africa, 1947 - 1999. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Kwazulu Natal Press.


Maloka, T., E. 1995. Basotho and the mines: towards a history of labour migrancy, c. 1890 - 1940. Doctor of Philosophy. University of Cape Town.


Olalde, M. (2017). South Africa: a minefield of hope... and violence. Pulitzer Center [online], 26 June. Available at [Accessed 20 June 2024].


Richardson, P. and van Helten, J.J. (1984). The development of the South African gold mining industry, 1895 - 1918. Economic History Society, 37(3), pp. 319 - 340.


Thelwell, E. (2014). Six things to know about the illegal mining boom. News24 [online], 26 June. Available at: [Accessed 14 June 2024].

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