Lonmin: the need for a comprehensive, transparent inquiry

Posted on August 22, 2012

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It will be a gross error if the proposed commission of inquiry into last week’s tragic events at Lonmin’s Marikana mine focusses solely on the violent incidents at the mine. It would also be a great disservice to the memories of the dead and the injured, as well as to miners and their families everywhere — let alone the country at large.

Local management manipulation and insensitivity, inter-union rivalry and police force over-reaction are all likely to have played roles in the disaster that unfolded. But they, like the levels of arrogance, ignorance and bigotry that seem to have afflicted various players in this bloody saga, are merely symptoms of a much deeper malaise.

And, unless any inquiry digs beneath the events of the past two weeks to expose all the relevant facts for all to see, we will simply be papering over social schisms in which reside wells of bitterness and anger that are straining to erupt. If this issue is not dealt with transparently and comprehensively, the only result will be to perhaps delay the next possible outburst.

However, the Lonmin events did force much of the country to confront, often for the first time, how hideous is the reality for so many of our fellow citizens. But this can soon be clouded over by platitudes and self-serving propaganda and myth. A shallow inquiry would play a part in this.

It is, after all, so much easier to find a single group or individual to blame; to avoid looking more deeply into uncomfortable truths. So poor police training or inter-union rivalry may become the prime focus in the wake of the slaughter on Thursday last week. Various major role players will also try desperately to distance themselves from any responsibility.

The Lonmin management was quick of the mark in this regard, announcing that it will — as part of its much promoted social responsibility programme — provide scholarships, right up to tertiary level, for the offspring of slain miners. Yet, as one of the recent widows noted: “All we wanted was a living wage.” She failed to add: which Lonmin failed to provide.

In fact, according to the Anglican bishop of Pretoria, Jo Seoka, the claim of platinum mining companies that they are socially responsible is false. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said in the wake of the shootings last week.

Bishop Seoka, is president of the South African Council of Churches and chair of the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF) that has monitored the situation on the mines for many months. He pointed to the “grim picture” painted by a BMF report released only days before Thursday’s tragedy. Entitled “Living in the Platinum Mines Fields” it paints a picture of mining communities mired in desperate poverty.

It is clear that many miners can rightly claim that their material conditons are worse now than they were under apartheid. During the previous era, mining companies were not obliged by law to house men, like so many artifacts, on three-tiered concrete bunks in stark, utilitarian hostels. But this was assessed to be the most efficient — and profitable — way to house a captive workforce that was also provided with rations and access to free health care.

After 1994 the single sex migrant labour hostels became, at least to a large degree, obsolete. But rather than provide family housing for the workforces, the mining companies found a more cost-effective solution: outsourcing.

A variety of labour broking companies now provide labour to the mines. They compete in terms of price. What this means is that the workers they provide are frequently paid less than the often quoted R4 000 a month. In addition, “contract miners” do not receive the accommodation, rations or health care of permanent workers. They are, instead, residents of the sprawling squatter camps that now surround the mines.

In makeshift shelters, without any amenities and often with their families, these men — and mining remains a largely male preserve — put their lives on the line every day in stygian conditions many hundreds of metres underground. This sort of work does not require — or produce — gentlefolk; miners everywhere tend to be a tough breed.

South African miners — and other migrant labourers in the country — also have a tradition of bearing weapons, usually knobkerries, sticks and spears in protest marches as a show of power, not necessarily with the intention of using them in battle. There are, in fact, several cultural practices, such as the consultations with sangomas, or the symbolic call by strikers to “go to the mountain” that are open to misinterpretation and need to be explained for all to understand.

A wide-ranging, transparent inquiry could dispel the myths and make plain not only what was and is, but also what needs to be done. It is an opportunity that we dare not miss.

Posted in: Commentary