In ‘Gasping’, one of the sessions at the 2020 #Breath Symposium, breathing takes on socio-political dimensions, particularly where health is concerned. From the experience of breathing underground for South African miners – and the related health complications – to the gasping that nurses must do to survive in a system that leans heavily on them but does not appreciate them, the panelists delve into breath as both a fight for oxygen, as well as a combative tool to address injustice.
The session features Mutsawashe Mutendi, a PhD student at the University of Cape Town, Dr Salimah Valiani, an independent researcher of world historical political economy, as well as Dr Sozita Goudouna, author and curator of Beckett’s Breath: Anti-theatricality and the Visual Arts. It is moderated by Renee van der Wiel, a research associate at the University of Johannesburg.
Mutendi unpacks her working paper Ndibile: Unpacking Narratives Of Breathing In Dust Underground In South African Mines. In it, she tries to understand how mine workers interpret, understand and make sense of TB. Valiani explores how nurses are the oxygen of the South African health system yet they work in extremely challenging conditions, and Goudouna discusses how breathlessness is not separate from politics and social injustices.
Watch the full conversation here and keep reading for key quotes by each panelist.
- “My presentation tries to understand how miners make sense of Tuberculosis (TB) and what their perceptions are. In doing so we are provided with commentary on what the lived experience is like to breathe underground.”
- “The mining sector is considered to be an institutional amplifier of TB because the mine sites produce a significantly higher-than-average TB infection rate. This could be attributed to the fact that the mining environment is often damp, overcrowded, enclosed and has poor ventilation.”
- “For several decades, occupational diseases such as TB and silicosis have plagued South Africa's mining industry. The high prevalence of TB among miners coincides with the early gold rush in 1886. It is estimated that nearly 50,000 miners died between 1886 and 1912 from TB and other occupational lung-related diseases.”
- “20 years into post-apartheid South Africa, miners have the highest rates of TB in the world. The TB infection rate among miners is estimated to be between 3,000 and 7,000 per 100,000 people. This is four to seven times higher than that of the general population in South Africa.”
- “I think of dust as a metaphor. It's a critique of the working conditions [within] capitalist experiences. I decided to use Rob Nixon’s concept of slow violence as the theory that holds everything together. Slow violence is a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, across time. It's not viewed as a violence.”
- “Miners perceive dust as inflicting a slow violence on their bodies… This invisible violence affects the health of miners in the long run. We don't think of breathing underground as violence, but it is violence and it's damaging people's bodies.”
- “Nurses make up 81% of the health labour force in this country. The vast majority of health workers are nurses and 89% of those are women. Nurses are the oxygen of the South African health system. That is why I want to ask about the quality of that breathing of nurses, and gasping is an excellent description.”
- “I want to start by giving you a few examples over the decades since 1994 of nurses' experiences in South Africa.”
- “Nurses cited workplace constraints that were preventing them from upholding the code of ethics and the South African nurses pledge… The workplace constraint that was most cited [by surveyed nurses] was disrespect from patients, blame by management for errors and other problems stemming from systemic inefficiencies, and staff shortages.”
- “A study was done around retention and major factors in nurse emigration. Shortages and excessive overtime came out as a major reason, lack of professional development opportunities, lack of rewards for the work and difficult work relations.”
- “We criticise nurses a great deal in this country. We often talk about whether they have ethics and we question their moral standing.”
- “We know that, given misogyny, when nurses strike it is seen in a particularly negative light compared to [strikes by] other workers… I think the tendency to then take nurses for granted and actually blame nurses for a lot of the problems that are far beyond their control is rooted in misogyny.”
- “These female health workers need to be enabled to lead because they are already leading but without recognition and without support.”
- “This presentation aspires to envelop a political understanding of breath and to consider how attending to the matter of respiration might help our theory and practice to rethink themselves, and to make this shift from the unconscious biological respiration to the metaphor of combat breathing.”
- “As Franz Fanon argues in his book A Dying Colonialism, there is no occupation of territory on the one hand and independence of persons on the other… Under these conditions the individual's breathing is an observed and occupied breathing; it's a combat breathing – a conscious breathing.”
- “The metaphor of respiration can hold the potential for expanding climate and social change discourse in politically and ethically creative ways.”
- “For indigenous nations, the implications of US militarism, industrialism, and capitalism have always been palpably felt on indigenous lands and through indigenous bodies from extraction to experimentation.”
- “George Floyd's last words, ‘I can't breathe’, echoed those of Eric Garner, murdered in the US by the police in 2014. Floyd was forced to the ground and killed by a knee on his neck. The knee pressed down for almost nine minutes. Garner repeated the word ‘breathe’ 11 times. Garner's words became all the more powerful as they merged and became part of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
- “By investigating the politics of respiration within contemporary society – and gasping, as this section is titled – we take as a starting point the shortness of breath, which is also minimalism in art, derived from the experience of global political pressure and economic austerity as well.”
- “The understanding of the materiality of breath and attending to the matter of respiration helps performance to rethink itself. The atmosphere has become a highly stressed zone and air – the most necessary and common of all living resources – becomes a material signifier for the invisible political bonds that constitute the society.”
This discussion was part of the Breath Symposium held virtually by Medical Health and Humanities Africa (MHHA) from 19 October to 13 November 2020. This article is part of a series of retrospective pieces looking at what emerged from the symposium. Follow #MHHABreath on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more.