The Portfolio: Daylin Paul

Unlicensed miner in community-made coal mine. Ermelo, Mpumalanga. 2018 (Daylin Paul)

Unlicensed miner in community-made coal mine. Ermelo, Mpumalanga. 2018 (Daylin Paul)

This image is in my book, Broken Land (Jacana), for which I received the Ernest Cole award in 2017. The image speaks to the reality of coal extraction and coal burning for electricity on the Mpumalanga highveld. The situation in Mpumalanga is beyond disastrous, it is a calamity of monumental proportions.

The truth that I witnessed is that the cost of coal, not simply in economic but also in environmental, health and social welfare terms, is simply unbearable.
Sometime, somewhere, something is going to break. For the working poor of Mpumalanga it is already broken.

I spent about four years going to and from Mpumalanga, finding people, places and facilities linked to coal. What drove me to begin this project, and what sustained me through its creation, was the sheer scale of the destruction and pollution. As I spent more time in the field and, through the processing of documenting, became closer to the people whose everyday reality was what I was trying to reflect, I realised that the real story was them. This miner is one of them.

Deep within a cave on a hillside overlooking a golf course in Ermelo, dozens of unemployed men, women and youths have carved a living for themselves from the coal seam that runs through the earth there. It is dark, dangerous and extremely claustrophobic in the cave system. There are no support beams and no lights; the miners work by torch or candlelight. There are no safety boots, makarapas (mining helmets) or ventilators. Any idea of safety is an illusion and the only source of comfort are the people in the dark with you. Dogs that live with the miners help when one becomes lost in the labyrinth of tunnels that make up the handmade mine.

But, when you are really alone in the dark, it’s easy to abandon all hope. This image was taken when I got lost. I tried to stay calm and follow the echoes of voices reverberating through the caverns but it’s not easy when there is no light.

When this informal miner appeared I was as relieved as I was startled, for the scene in front of my eyes was like something from a post-apocalyptic film. Perhaps we are in the opening scenes right now.

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