The Zama Zama Project

An installation by Rosalind Morris about the world of informal mining in the abandoned gold mines of South Africa


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Politics / Economics
  • Public culture
  • Social Justice

Organizing Institutions

Slought, Penn Social Justice & Arts Integration Initiative

Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought and the SP2 Social Justice and Arts Integration Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania are pleased to announce "The Zama Zama Project," a multi-format installation about the world of informal mining in the abandoned gold mines of South Africa, on display January 24, 2020 through March 13, 2020. The installation featured the work of artist and anthropologist Rosalind Morris, in collaboration with Ebrahim Hajee, Rogers 'Bhekani' Mumpande, Prosper Ncube and Darren Munenge. A public conversation with Rosalind Morris, Radhika Subramaniam, and Eduardo Cadava about informal mining and its representation will take place during the opening reception, which is free and open to the public.

The Zama Zama Project features high-resolution, immersive video and narrative documentary shorts about the lives of men and women who make their living scavenging for gold. This collaborative project grows out of long-term research in the Witwatersrand gold-mining region that stretches over more than two decades. In this fragile and toxic environment, men mine for gold in decaying tunnels kilometers beneath the surface of the earth, and women grind stone by hand to extract the precious metal. The Zama Zama Project is intended to document their predicament, while providing an opportunity for audiences to encounter life in these remnants of the gold-mining world and to hear from and engage those who live in it.

For more than a hundred years, South Africa was the world's largest gold producer. Its mines were theaters of technological power and geochemical know-how. Today, as the ores are being depleted, many of the mines are closing. And new waves of migrants are entering their ruins to scavenge in the deep for remnants of gold. The most extreme forms of such scavenging are called Zama Zama mining. The phrase means both to keep on trying and to gamble. Zama Zama miners are the gamblers of the ruining world, speculators on survival in the time of deindustrialization.

In the dreams of alchemists and sovereigns, gold has been the visual element of symbolic authority and the medium of economic power. In the hallucinations of prospectors, it has been the sign of an expanding future. But industrial gold mining is both intoxicating and toxifying. And in the poisoned ruins, history verifies Walter Benjamin's claim, made nearly 100 years ago, that industrial capitalism not only generated waste but made waste itself a source of value, even as it divided the world and condemned many to the status of the abandoned. Today, the reclamation of residual gold from mine dumps takes place on an industrial scale, and the space of scavenging is itself contracting. This is not the utopian space of digitization or entrepreneurial self-actualization, but a shadowy domain in which work is being re-manualized and severed from wages. It is a world of illegalized migration and permanent movement without the freedom implied by the term, 'mobility.' Here, everything is afterlife.

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Over the past four years, Rosalind Morris, an anthropologist who has spent more than two decades conducting research on the social lives of natural resource extraction, has been collaborating with Zama Zamas to produce a form of documentation that testifies to the lived reality of those who live in the shadow of the gold industry's deindustrialization, while exploring the limits of documentary method.

The Zama Zama Project is oriented by a simple set of questions which aim to illuminate the broad contours of the postindustrial and post-monetary predicament in the context of natural resource extraction: What has gold done to people? What does it make them do?

Gold is a medium of circulation that works as hard currency only by becoming abstract. Similarly, it is at the threshold of the visible world that Zama Zamas make their living—or die trying. They are the objects of fearful stereotype. In The Zama Zama Project, these miners of the margins, including both the men who go underground and the women who make their living crushing stone by hand, give their lives to be seen, their stories to be heard.

Creative Team

Conceived, produced and directed by
Rosalind Morris
Cinematography by Ebrahim Hajee
Sound Recording by Musa Radebe
Underground cameras by Rogers 'Bhekani' Mumpande, Prosper Ncube, and Darren Munenge
Edited by Pascal Ploetz Troemel

Rosalind Morris is an award-winning anthropologist, cultural critic, filmmaker and media theorist, who has taught at Columbia University, where she is Professor of Anthropology, for 25 years. She has worked for more than two decades to document the transforming life-worlds around the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. She is the author of 7 books and more than 70 essays, and has been recognized with numerous awards.

Ebrahim Hajee grew up in Athlone, a poor suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. His first documentary, Overspray (2001) won the gold award for best documentary at the Stone Awards. Since then, Hajee has worked for both local and international companies on projects that range from feature narratives to guerilla documentaries, music videos to television commercials. Hajee is also a still photographer, who works in a variety of analog and digital formats.

Pascal Ploetz Troemel is a New York-based editor. He works mainly in documentary film, but has edited everything from commercials and music videos to award-winning narrative shorts. Troemel's documentary credits include Borderline (2016), directed by Debbie Ratner and Borderline Notes, a youtube channel of 350 short films to accompany the feature film; Volta, directed by Stella Kyriakopoulos (2014), and selected for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival; and Drinking from the Well (2011), directed by Skinner Myers.

"The mine is my parents, that's what I can say. That's where I depend."

— informal miner, South Africa