Bourke-White photographed this pair of miners in 95 degree heat and close to 100 per cent humidity, more than a mile underground at Robinson Deep gold mine, just south of downtown Johannesburg. She claimed this was the favorite of all her photographs.
The image on the left appeared on the first page of Bourke-White’s Life photo essay on “South Africa and Its Problem.”
The one on the right, rarely reproduced, remains in her archives at Syracuse University.
The caption in Life identified these miners as from the Ndau ethnic group of southern Mozambique. The mines around Johannesburg had a long history of recruiting migrant laborers from all over southern Africa. In 1950, 58% of South Africa’s 295,000 miners still came from beyond the borders of the country, half of them from Mozambique.
The photograph of miners 1139 and 5122–Bourke-White was never able to learn their names–that appeared in Life in 1950 came to symbolize the experience of African workers living under apartheid. The image has been frequently reproduced, re-appropriated, and referenced in different circumstances, as suggested by the documents on the left and right. It appeared in her obituary in the New York Times in 1971, and more recently in a 2004 story on South African mining by journalist Roger Cohen.The pamphlet on the left was produced by Black labor militants in the U.S. in response to the massive strikes by African workers in Durban in 1973. The magazine on the right appeared in post-apartheid South Africa, in the wake of the massacre by police of 34 striking platinum miners at Marikana, North West Province, on August 16, 2012.