Middelburg, as you might know, is a mining town about two hours’ drive from Johannesburg, some thirty or forty kilometres past Witbank on the N4 which, if you follow it onwards for a few hundred kilometres more, will take you all the way to the Kruger National Park. As you approach the turnoff, the only landmark of any significance is the Duvha power station, away in the distance to your right, the solid-seeming plumes of its emissions tethered to a line of tall cooling towers that appear, in the warm morning light, to be carved from pale renaissance stone. The scale of the thing, as we approach it on the narrow secondary road that will take us to the mine, is immense. Our driver informs us, with as much awe as pride, that just the base of the towers, whose angled struts appear from our distance almost ludicrously small, like segments of matchstick, is nine storeys high.
We are met at the mine’s training academy by three big Afrikaner men: Danie, Andre, and Chris. Andre, in particular, has a grip like a vice. These men are of the rugby-loving, boerewors and beer variety – Chris informs us that he will watch the World Cup, if that is all that is on the box, but don’t expect him to understand what is going on. Soccer is not a game, one suspects, for real men.
After the introductions (Lulu, our host from head office, is a petite, articulate black woman, Nazrene, my colleague, is Indian, I am the only whitey on our delegation) we are kitted out with safety gear – boots, hard hats, goggles, yellow jackets – and set out on our tour of the facilities. The centre trains electricians, boilermakers, riggers, fitters, diesel mechanics, miners – not only for the mine, but for companies such as Eskom and Transnet, other mining companies, companies as far afield as KwaZulu Natal. Each workshop is spotless; each has groups of busy and absorbed trainees, black, white, male, female, filing away at bits of metal, poring over circuit boards, standing over a diesel engine. The whole place has a sense of quiet efficiency and purpose: people are learning here how things are done, in the real world, and when they are released back into that world, they will know how to get things done, too.
We get a sense of what that means, in the simulated mine. We could be deep underground – the mine, we are told, reaches 23 kilometres into the bowels of the earth – but in fact we are in a converted shed. But it feels real enough. In the outer room are lamps and gas meters, neatly lined up for the incoming shift to collect; from there, you go through to a room at the entrance to the mine, which is where those coming off shift will brief those going in, on conditions underground; and then we are in the underground tunnel itself. We see where the roof is cracked, and where beams or iron rods have been inserted to prop it up; we see the blast wall, built to absorb and channel the effects of an underground explosion; we see where the underground flow of water has been dammed up; we enter the safety room, where the miners will take refuge behind a heavy steel door, when there is fire or gas or flooding or the collapse of part of the mine. Towards the end of the tour, our supervisor turns out the lights – it is dark all right, and it is a relief when he turns on his lamp.
You begin to see, you tell yourself, what training really means: it is so that the men underground will not kill themselves, or their fellow workers; it is so they will be able to repair a diesel engine while standing knee deep in water, by the light of a torch, in the heat and humidity of the coal face; it is training so that the work will get done and the mine will continue to produce the coal that fires the Duvha power station, and you and I will turn on the electricity and power our computers and heat our meals and keep our beers chilled in the fridge.
Back in the air-conditioned comfort of the boardroom, we are given a presentation on the academy’s training programmes. It is also, we discover, a lecture on the decline of training in South Africa, and a list of concerns, familiar to us but now hammered home with a greater sense of reality, about reforms that have broken the old link between technical colleges and the workplace, turning out young people with qualifications but no skills, and with expectations of employment that will not be met.
It is a familiar lament, and not only here in South Africa. Yet Andre, Chris and Danie make it real. These are men who seem to embody, in many ways, the old South Africa; big Afrikaners, secure in their white male skins, stamped with the identity of their trades. Yet their sense of what it means to be an artisan, their total commitment to a standard of technical competence, their passion for training; their no-nonsense but dedicated concern for the people to whom they are imparting their skills, demands and deserves unqualified respect.
The old ways, it seems, are seldom wholly bad (apartheid was wholly bad, but that is an extreme case). Things become what they are over time, they are shaped by our experience and our interactions, they may be our creatures but they become more than us. Our metaphors for change should reflect this: more than wholesale reform, often what is really needed is to fix or repair, to modernise or update; to grow or evolve.
Yet how often, instead, do we approach new ideas with a blind consumerism, buying, importing, using, discarding. One season it was Australian ‘models’ of training that were in vogue; now one detects a yearning for the traditional, sober, ‘German system’. Because we are modern, progressive, well-educated, we see these ‘models’ as social constructs, as if they were shelves that can be set up anywhere, in any pattern, and stocked with whatever it is that we desire, rather than as ways of being, forms of social organisation, instances of collective and individual identity formed, as the land is formed, over generations.
The road to Middelburg is paved with our good intentions. Is that what we tell them, those, ‘the masses’ so beloved of our populist politicians, who we have failed through our social engineering, our millenarian dreaming? That our intentions were good? That we wanted the best?