Steve McQueen’s ‘Western Deep’ is a counter memory for Black miners during South African Apartheid
As descendants know, the absence of evidence is rarely the evidence of absence.
by Donnie Moreland
Steve McQueen’s Western Deep is a horror film. Though McQueen’s 2002 dual video installation (presented with Carib’s Leap) is, in form, video art, I feel it is possible to understand Western Deep as genre cinema.
An exploration into the TauTona Mine Shaft No.3 of South Africa—also known as Western Deep—it is a type of horror film that leaves you suspended in a kind of state of sleep paralysis. Never knowing exactly what’s in front of you, faces coming and going into an eternal darkness, noise that is ever present but drowning in silence. And the need to move, to lift your body enough to walk away but knowing damn well you belong to the claustrophobic descent into the (at the time of initial viewing) deepest mine in the world.
You belong to it, until you’re no longer needed and then you’re allowed to leave, but it will always follow you. Those faces, that beating of metal on metal. It will follow you, because much like the men who worked that mine—Zulu, Xhosa, Bapedi.Ndebele, Basotho, Tsonga, Swazi and BaTswana men—a part of you stays, no matter how far your body escapes.
And that is the terror of Western Deep. A horror which can rarely be fictionalized because stories have an end. Yet, daily peonage, unreported (and hidden)—both in and out of Africa—is an eternal, futile bloodsport. And it is the horror which has no end, no resolution and lay with you in bed at night that is the most unsettling—which are the emotions the exploited demand of us in our consideration of their conditions.
The TauTona Gold Mine, which opened in 1962 and was the deepest recorded until Mponeng Gold Mine was commissioned in 1986, has been closed since 2017. AngloGold, according to their Online Integrated Report for 2018, presents the decision as one which affords the company greater fiscal opportunities for other transcontinental developments.
In and of itself, there is nothing abnormal about the closing of a mine-for profit expansion—by a capitalist conglomerate, per the rules of capitalism. But when we consider the history of AngloGold, having been founded as Anglo American plc in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1917 by Ernest Oppenheimer (founder of De Beers), a history of Apartheid colors how we should consider, less the closure, but the miners who’ve worked this mine and what the legacy of TauTona should be, aside from an exhausted business oppurtunity.
Unsurprisingly, there isn’t much information on the miners who’ve worked the now defunct gold mine. The mine having been opened for 55 years, we only seem to be able to access information on work conditions, per report, as of the mid 2000’s and this rarely concerns more than human loss via accident and even then, information is few and far between.
Much of the information regarding suspected contemporary conditions we must acquire proximally from reports of AngloGold’s activity in South America (reports of using deadly force in quelling worker insurrection in Colombia) or at other African sites (reports of pollution and poverty exacerbation in Ghana). Anecdotal accounts are virtually impossible to gather, without access to identifying information of these men, and any images of mine conditions, if could be accessed, wouldn’t satisfy public interest in the more gratuitous visualisations (i,e. Nsala staring at the severed hands and feet of his daughter, in the Congo) of colonization to validate the argument that modern peonage fits into a legacy of European violence, on the continent and throughout the Diaspora.
And as descendants know, the absence of evidence is rarely the evidence of absence.
Mass explosions of cruelty, as a practice of securing productivity, prevents modern business initiative (and interests) and as Frantz Fanon professes in The Wretched of the Earth, “A blind domination founded on slavery is not economically speaking worthwhile for the bougeoisie of the mother country. The monopolistic group within this bourgeoisie does not support a government whose policy is solely that of the sword. What the factory owners and finance magnates of the mother country expect from their government is not that it should decimate the colonial peoples, but that it should safeguard with the help of economic conventions their own ‘legitimate interest.'”
These legitimate interests, meaning ore reserves in the case of TauTona, were the priority of operation and explicit anti-Black violence undercuts that precedent so we are left to inquire about where, if we believe in the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy, the implicit violence occurred. Where were these men silenced? That’s where Western Deep becomes it’s most necessary.
Western Deep operates as counter memory—or a story which serves to resist the dominant narrative posed by a supremacist faction in the practice of constructing history. McQueen, here, argues that the fact that we know nothing of these men is intentional and not some residual implication of confirming equity, or the human rights of laborers.
McQueen is suggesting that because the violence of Apartheid, and pre modern-colonialism, was so inexorably brutal that the modern conditions of labor which demand just as much of the workman are excused via the contemporary practice of meeting bare minimum standards of operative protections.
The psychological, and emotional toil of the work is given little credence—in global considerations of human rights violations—thus offering up these men, and their trauma, for erasure. With said intention, the darkness with which the installation opens, and remains present for three minutes, functions as much as a tool to capture spectatorial empathy as it does act as a POV, of both sight and the interior, of what arriving to site everyday must have elicited in immediate sensory experience for these men.
And it’s only when we reckon with the meaning of that darkness—of entering a space where you are not to be seen, in as much as you’re not to see anyone else (to see and/or report to)—that we see the first faces of Western Deep.
About those faces, you rarely ever see them clearly. First, you see the eyes of a man, as an elevator descends with him and other miners. But you almost wouldn’t notice them, because of the blistering sounds of machinery which explode out of the screen. It’s blistering and overstated and that’s the point. You drown in it, as they do, until the film becomes silent, as the men enter the mine. So many men and all you can make of them are their backs.
Suddenly there is a ravine and the sounds of machines erupt, as you’re shifted again to parts of inconceivable faces, lights, the silhouettes of hammers swinging and this as the sound travels in and out. It’s exhausting, monotonous and harrowing. Never once do you have a clue of what the fuck is going on.
And then you see your first face. A Black man, with long twists, no older than thirty and with a thermometer in his mouth. He speaks, but the sequence is silent. His eyes never break from the camera, from your eyes and whatever the words he’s speaking become so loud in this silence. And you’re back in the mine again.
Everything is blurred and you can now barely discern how many bodies you’re looking at. It’s like this until you reach an elevator and now the faces come into view, but just chins. Just eyebrows. Just hard hats.
This is when you think of the man, with the twists and the thermometer and you now discover you wish you’d hadn’t wondered because you’re back in that room with so many like him. A long room with Black men, clothed only with thin blue shorts, their faces in clear view. They are sitting and your heart pounds with the distress of curiosity.
They are in two lines now. A blaring alarm sounds and they move up. The alarm sounds again and they move down. And again. And again. And again. This is when you discover the loud red light which indicated they move up, before it dawns on you that this is an examination. A physical examination. A test of their physical fitness.
As McQueen suggested in a Retrospective, and Dialogue, at the Walker Art Center, these men are beholden to the expectations of their bodies. So many depend on them, no matter where they come from and no matter how they come home empty handed—from injury or lack of physical fitness. Putting these men on display in such a historically violent showcasing of Black physical ability is insufferable enough without considering the exploitation of regional poverty, much in how we think of sharecropping contracts post emancipation in America.
The obtuse legacy of global Black slave labor spills all through this room and with a part of that legacy being the often fatal interruptions of laborer protest, we can imagine what might await any of these men if they were to stop, or object to such humiliation. So they move up and down, up and down and up and down. So much so that the room grows silent and all you are left with is their continuous, almost eternal movement.
And then the alarm brings us back from the hypnotic sway of exhausted bodies. The alarm blares until the red of it fills the entire screen, and at this point it might as well be blood. Which if you consider the deaths of men who were victim to Earth tremors and, more specifically, corporate neglect in the mid 2000’s, and the “illegal” miner strikes which followed, that red tells a far more ominous tale of these men, their bodies and rage silenced.
The final frame of Western Deep is a face, slowed in motion behind a gate. Like an imprisoned ghost, whomever this man is, he fades as the video ends. It’s fitting, to be left with such emptiness and pain gravitating around the question of, “Who are, who were these men?” But as you separate further from the screen, you realize that question doesn’t matter (much like the mine which closed in exchange for pennies saved).
What matters is that men, these Black men, were there and now they are not and that all that remains of their struggle are the echoes of sounds which are so loud that they blur the memories of faces, that even when present, were barely visible in the dark. Dispensable faces, hidden away behind cages, and beneath rock, without a witness to their struggle. They were, and in many ways—much as the final frame of the film—trapped.
The physical bearing of violence which would have come from the whip, sword or bullet a century ago has been replaced with mental, emotional and spiritual scarring that when these men rise above ground, no one will think to count. A secret, between their memory and the mine. And was meant to be so. That’s the horror of it. That’s the horror of the Western Deep mine shaft and the Western Deep film that remembers it. That’s the horror of white progress.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.