Some might have considered the back-to-back scheduling of Marikana filmmaker and ex-Robben Island prisoner Sipho Singiswa with mineral economist Jeanette McGill somewhat brave, but the two different perceptions of mining in South Africa shown at TEDxJoburg this morning made for a challenging overview of an industry that remains economically, and culturally, at the very heart of South Africa – even if most city dwellers are only vaguely aware that it exists.

Singiswa was filming a piece about the Marikana strikes at the time of the massacre in 2012, and he describes it not as an awakening, but an incident that forced him to recognise something: “I had always known – South Africa had not shifted at all for black workers. We bask in the sun and pretend racism is behind us and we can all move on.”

For Singiswa, the killing of the miners and the reaction of the majority of people he spoke to afterwards – that somehow it could be justified or that the miners deserve it – blew apart the myth of the Rainbow Nation. A predominantly black underclass exists, and they are expected to endure things that no-one should be expected to.

“We fail to empathise with those who are vulnerable and poor,” Singiswa says, “And maybe also those who are black.”

The constant looping of footage of the miners being killed on 24/7 was like watching a snuff movie, Singiswa said.

Following Singiswa’s stories of families impoverished before Marikana, and utterly broken afterwards would have been difficult for any TEDx speaker. For someone at the other end of the mining industry, a specialised business analyst, it must have been especially tough. But Jeanette McGill proved a successful counterpoint. Without referencing Marikana, she argued that the mining industry has to change (and fast) in order to remain relevant.

According to McGill – who says that she worked underground for seven years as part of her training – mining in South Africa today hasn’t changed much for 150 years. The methods and machinery are, fundamentally, the same.

“Go beneath your desk for six to eight hours and turn the lights off,” McGill explained, “That’s a bit like what it looks like in one of our gold mines.”

The challenge for South African mines, she says, is that seams are unusually thin and long – gold and platinum seams run for kilometres underground, but are only a few centimetres wide. Most of the rock extracted is taken to make room for miners, so the bare minimum is, of course, taken.

South Africa should be a leader in developing new techniques for mining, she says.

“There’s an opportunity to develop robotic platforms that are ruggedised,” McGill explained, “And controlled using 3D imaging and Xbox Kinect technologies.”

[Main pic – Sipho Singiswa]