The most unexpected thing about going to South Africa is that the plane is full. In a year like the one South Africa has been having, I had expected to stretch out across a few empty seats and get a good night’s sleep. But every single seat on my 747 from Frankfurt to Johannesburg is occupied. I poll my seatmates: one is a young Englishwoman going to visit her parents, who have settled in South Africa; the other is a German who visits the country twice a year on business, but whose real enthusiasm is for hunting. “Springbok, antelope, an incredible variety of game . . . the professional hunter takes along his [black] boy; they’re out in the bush together all day; they’ve been working together for years. No race problems there . . . . Politics? Oh, South Africa just needs time to solve its problems.” Judging from the tennis racquets and other paraphernalia they carry, many passengers are vacationers, heading for the country’s beautiful beaches. And judging from the statistics, I realize later, some must be immigrants. Two years of upheaval have reduced the number of Europeans moving to South Africa, but 17,284 newcomers arrived in the country since 1985, lured by skilled jobs, good pay, and house servants at $30 a month. At the Johannesburg airport, newspapers report the latest township battles between blacks and the police, but in most of their pages there is little to show that the country is under a State of Emergency. Instead there are advertisements for computer matchmaking, advice-to-the-lovelorn columns, articles about beauty tips, lost cats, high school reunions, tennis matches, and even an all-white bank robbery. And personal ads: White male professional, 35, likes wine, sports; seeks female companionship.

On the connecting flight to Cape Town, a chatty pilot points out landmarks; stewards serve drinks. The only indication that everything is not normal comes in an announcement after we land: “The safest part of your journey is now over. On leaving the airport, please drive carefully.” There is nervous laughter from the passengers. The road between Cape Town and its airport goes past a number of African and Coloured (mulatto) townships, whose residents have been intermittently stoning vehicles on the highway. An armored car is parked on the airport tarmac, and a mini-bus cruising by has wire mesh over its windows. But today things are quiet, and from the windows of the bus going into the city I can see black teenagers playing soccer on gravelly patches of dirt. Cape Town. I lived here for a month some twenty-five years ago; this hillside sea-city’s charm haunted me then, and it still does today. Why? Perhaps because the place is in such contrast to the nature of society. We may unconsciously expect physical beauty to soften and enlighten the humans living among it, yet here the full panoply of apartheid has been legislated into being in a setting of surpassing loveliness. There are grand public buildings and sunny gardens and arcaded nineteenth-century streets; the flat-topped Table Mountain looms above everything. At night, the lighted Alpine cable car station on its summit twinkles like a high star. Shade trees cover the streets with green; the air fills with fresh smells from an open-air flower market. Only a few graffiti scrawled on the walls: RELEASE MANDELA or CANCEL THE CALL-UP! (from white student draft registers) remind you the scene is not somewhere in southern Europe.

Gone today, however, is the vibrant District Six–a lively hubbub of open-air markets, musicians, prostitutes, gamblers, small-time thieves, sailors come to part with their money. The heart of Cape Town’s Coloured community for a hundred years, District Six has been erased from the map, bulldozed by apartheid’s master planners. All that is left is a vast tract of weed-covered rubble. There are two dozen of us on the visit to the Libanon gold mine, mostly foreign tourists and business people. The mining industry runs these tours several times a week, and two years of strikes, boycotts, and mass killings and arrests haven’t interfered. Our group is outfitted in boots, white jump suits, and helmets with lights on top, then packed tightly into a metal cage for the long journey downwards. The shaft is deeper than the Grand Canyon. Two thirds of the way down we stop, get out of the elevator, and are taken almost a mile laterally, in a small diesel-powered train about four feet high. We are shepherded along the way by white supervisors. I ask one if there has been any violence at this mine. Last week there were reports in the papers of fights between black and white miners underground, and the white mine workers union’s chief has urged his men to wear guns to work. No, the supervisor says, “We get on with each other here.” As I take notes, he asks, eyes narrowing: “Are you one of those reporters?Who writes lies about South Africa?”

We get off the train and walk towards “the face”: the edge of the gold seam. Gold comes in a piebald ore, a thin layer of which is squeezed between two masses of much harder rock. The mine works in three shifts: on the first, miners drill long holes in the ore; on the next, dynamite planted in those holes is exploded; on the third, the vast quantities of ore shaken loose are brought back up to the surface for processing and refining. It takes five tons of ore to make a wedding ring’s worth of gold. Along the walls of a corridor where we are walking are padlocked red boxes where dynamite is stored. Inserting the dynamite has tradionatlly been done by white foremen: partly to preserve the fiction that only they are capable of such “skilled” work, and partly to keep blacks from getting their hands on explosives. In this section of the mine, one white supervises one hundred and forty blacks.

After clambering down a ladder an squeezing through a narrow rock passageway, we reach the face. The seam of gold ore here in narrow and tilted sharply. It thus forms one long wall of an underground gallery that is three and a half feet high, several hundred feet wide, maybe a hundred feet deep — and slated at a fortyf-five degree angle. Thick wooden posts keep the low ceiling from collapsing. Eveyr thirty feet or so, all along the gallery wall, crounching black miners are operating compressed air drills, making holes for the dynamite. The noise in unbelievable: imagine half a dozen pneumatic jackhammers the size of those used to dig up streets, all operating beneath a rock ceiling so low you can’t stand up.

The drills stop, leaving just the compressed air hissing in the hoses, so that we can hear the supervisor explain what goes on here. On the way out, he says cheerfully: “Those chaps, they don’t like to stop work. When all those drills are going at the same time, like this”–he makes a motion of gripping a vibrating machine with his hands–“with all that noise–now, that’s what they like.”

Soon the metal cage whisks us back up to the surface. After changing out of the helmets and boots, we are taken by bus to various full size models of mine shafts and corridors. “This is where we teach the blokes about winchdriving.” “This is where we teach them Fanakalo.”

Fanakalo is an invented language. The language itself symbolizes the dilemma South African whites face in trying to retain control of an increasingly industrialized economy. Black miners at Libanon, like those at most mines in South Africa, come from different ethnic groups speaking more than half a dozen languages. This hiring pattern is deliberate: it puts an enormous obstacle in the way of union organizing. Yet the miners have to understand orders, or else the mine won’t work. Hence Fanakalo. With a simplified syntax and a vocabulary of some 1,000 words drawn from a number of African languages, it was created soley for the giving of commands. From the seats of a classroom, we watch a black instructor shout a trainee miner in boots and work clothes, who acts out instructions that evidently mean: “Get up! Get that tool over there! Bring it here!

Libano’s 750 white employees live near the mine with their families; all by a tiny fraction of the 6,250 black miners here–as at all mines in South Africa are migrants. At this mine men work for a minimum contract period of forty-five weeks, and are generally able to return. Elsewhere migrant workers may not be able to reclaim the same job after going home to spend time with there families. As we move on to watch masked, asbestos gloved workers at the mine’s smelting furnace, I remember the words of a minister in Johannesbrug who has worked with migrant laborers: “The migrant cultivates forgetfulness in friendships. He can’t afford to from close relationships; it is too painful when they end.

The compound where Libanon’s black miners live is surrounded by a high fence, with a watchtower and gate. Gate and watchtower are unmanned at times of labor unrest. Management at some other mines keeps an eye on hostels with closed-circuit video cameras, and one major company, Anglo-American, has installed remote-controlled tear-gas dispensers at its mine compounds.

At the black miners’ dining hall, the white bus driver quips, “Don’t have lunch here, ” as we file out. In a pantry is laid out an exhibit of the food served inside: a table of samnples, like those plastic models of food in the windows of Japanese restaurants, labeled “Chicken,” “Beef,” “Mealies,: and (sic) “Black Beer.” “We issue it to them three times a week,” explains the white compound manager,”This is their traditional beer.” Behind the table are vast, ceiling-high pressure cookers. The compound manager rattles off statistics about how many thousand kilos of meat, grains, and bread are served each month. In the dining room itself, a long line of miners, many still in helmets and dusty jump suits, snakes past a cafeteria counter to get meat, vegetables and mealie pooridge, which is dished out of huge laundry cart-sized tubs with a trowel-like scoop.

Finally, the compound manager takes us inside a “hostel” where the migrant miners live. There are sixteen men to a suite of rooms, with a simple bed and lockable cupboard for each man, and a few tables. “We’ve got shower rooms for them here,” the manager explains, ” And over there are TV rooms. We show them videos when they’re off duty.” The facilities are no worse than any barracks, but the remarkable theng is that the manager has simply marched in here, unannounced, without knocking, with this group of white tourists, some of whom wander around snapping flash pictures as he lectures us and answers questions for ten of fifteen minutes. Several of the room’s occupants, night-shift workers asleep on their beds, are woken up by this invasion of stangers. We have all just walked in as if entitled to intrude, like doctors making the rounds of a hospital ward.

Migrant labor is so central an experience to South African blacks that many songs and myths have grown up about it. It takes on the aura of an epic experience, a rite of passage in which a man leaves his rural village for a long journey to unknown dangers–for underground mining, here even more than in other countries, leads to many injuries and deaths.

Some miners at the Libanon mine are Sothos, who travel across the Caledon River, called Mohokare in Sotho, to come here. One song they sing on their journey goes:

Wash me clean, Mohokare, and make me a pure man.
Make me a man who is fit to go to heaven.
Cleanse me from my sins because I am going to
The dangerous place where I may lose my life.

Philip Dixie, a South African sociologist reports a story he heard many times from black miners, a fable. In it you can see the effect of tours by white vistors such as the one I was on, and a haunting image of mining as an earthly hardship from which only the supernatural offers escape.

Every so often on an appointed day white women enter the mine. While underground one of the party will slip away to an abandoned part of the mine there to have discourse with a ghost. On parting the woman leaves a large amount of money at the place of meeting…Later the men of the night shift enter the mine….It is then that the ghost chooses one of the black worders, and while thay are alone, passes the money on to him with these words: ‘You must not tell anyone about this-not your relatives; not even your closest friends. Take this money, go home, use it for your children’s education, and never return.”

One of my last visits before leaving South Africa was to an old friend, Ernie Wentzel, a white anti-apartheid lawyer who has spent two stretches in prison.

“I see two changes in South Africa in the last twenty years,” he says. “The image the whites have of blacks has changed, and that that blacks have of whites has changed. Whites take blacks more seriously. They call them blacks of Africans now, not natives or Bantu. They regard them as a political force which somehow, unfortunately, has to be reckoned with. They regard them almost…almost as people.”

“Blacks, on the other hand, have more pride in themselves, less respect for whites, less fear of white power. In one sense this is good; in another it may be a serious mistake, for it may cause them to underestimate white military strength and willingness to hang on here.”

Ernie is in a hospital bed. In a few weeks he will be dead of cancer. Around him are piles of books and newspapers. The phone rings repeatedly; one call is from Winnie Mandela to say that prisoners “on the island” (Robben Island, site of a major political prison for blacks) have heard he is sick and wish him well. As we resume our talk, Ernie displays no self-pity, and instead asks eagerly about whom I’ve seen. He wants to talk about the political situation, not himself. Only when I press him does he tell me that he is so weakened by tumors and the drugs used to treat him that he has hallucinations at night. ” They are always the same. I see the front page of a newspaper, a South African newspaper. But then, I’m unable to turn the page.”

Originally published in the April 1987 issue of Boston Review