Goats, scrawny dogs and chickens wander the dirt roads. There is electricity but only communal water taps.
The police shooting that killed 34 miners during a strike for better pay last Thursday has underscored the brutality faced by workers and exposed their dire living conditions: many live in shacks at the foot of some of the world's richest platinum reserves.
Ian Buhlungu, 47, rents a corrugated iron and wood hut in a shantytown on a dusty plain outside the mine. He has no running water and uses a pit toilet. "I want to be with my kids but I can't," said the widower, whose wife died of tuberculosis two years ago.
Like thousands of others, he travelled far to earn enough to feed his daughter and twin sons, left behind in the care of his family in the rural Eastern Cape. "People who are not educated get a low salary and can't afford to feed their families," he told AFP.
That many of the men are barely educated was tragically shown when the wildcat strikers believed stories that police bullets would not hurt them because they were dosed up on traditional South African medicines. Survivors of last week's shooting said a witchdoctor had been selling potions he promised would make them invincible. "We knew their weapons would not work on us as the inyanga (traditional healer) who arrived during the week told us so," Nothi Zimanga, one of the strikers, told South Africa's Daily Dispatch newspaper. He said the men who charged through teargas into a line of policemen armed with assault rifles and pistols had made ritual cuts across their bodies and smeared a black substance into the wounds for protection.
They were told the medicine would stop bullets - if they always charged forward and never looked back, Mr Zimanga said.
A fellow striker, Bulelani Malawana, said he was offered the concoction for 1000 South African rand ($115). He declined. "After they got the muti (medicine), people were so aggressive. They just wanted to fight," he said.
That was a significant sum - about a week's wages - for most of the 3000 rock-drill operators camped on a hill outside the Marikana mine to demand better pay.
The strikers said their 4000-rand monthly pay from Lonmin was too little to live on. It was better, they said, to starve at home than toil in a hellish mineshaft. Africa's largest economy was built on cheap black labour, workers harnessed to extract deep reserves of gold, platinum and diamonds. During apartheid, minority white rulers forced black South Africans to live in areas far removed from white cities, without job prospects, forcing them to become migrant workers in the mines living in tough conditions.
"A hundred years after mining began in this country, we still have the lifestyle of people above the ground that we had at the turn of the century," analyst Adam Habib told AFP. "The levels of inequality in our society, 18 years after our transition ... the lives of workers on the ground have not changed."
In a front-page commentary, The Sunday Independent noted: "Most Marikana mineworkers live in a slum city, the epicentre of our social and moral breakdown and a fuse for violence."