A background to Marikana

Posted on August 23, 2012


The deaths at Lonmin amount to the bloodiest tragedy of the post-apartheid era.  As a result, the blame game is in full swing and is likely to continue in the weeks ahead.

But all the finger pointing, accusations and counter accusations only highlight the plethora of questions that desperately need to be thoroughly interrogated.  Any resulting answers also need then to be acted upon in a comprehensive way.  As matters now stand, there seems to be a dangerous tendency not to confront the issue holistically.

The possibly inappropriate over-reaction by a heavy armed police force that resulted in so many deaths and injuries is an obvious focus for those demanding accountability.  Questions should certainly be asked as to why the two police helicopters did not drop teargas if there was a danger of armed conflict;  why  barbed wire entanglements were not set up and why live ammunition was issued and who gave the order to shoot.

But the causes of this tragedy extend well beyond police training and who gave the orders and planned — or failed to plan — the police action.   They also extend beyond the rivalry between, primarily, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and even the attitude and approach of management.

Above all the whole, horrific business should not be seen in isolation from the almost daily and often violent protests around the country.  All appear to stem from the same fundamental cause, the welling up of community and workplace anger.

There are, of course, special circumstances related to mining.  But, on a general level, what lies at the root of all these upheavals is the so-called “gatvol factor”, the anger of people whose lives remain mired in desperate poverty.

That criminal elements and individuals with various political agendas should take advantage of such situations is scarcely surprising.  But this in no way alters the fact that the underlying cause is the social and economic conditions in which so many people find themselves trapped.

This has been illustrated in numerous studies, the most recent of which was the Bench Marks Foundation report released just two days before the massacre at the Lonmin Makana shaft.  All the conditions were in place to indicate that what happened on Thursday last week was a bloodbath waiting to happen.

In the absence of adequate communication and leadership from management, unions and government, peppered by arrogance, ignorance and complacency, violence was always in  prospect.  That it escalated in the way that it did really provides only detail to the circumstances that have ensured a new legacy of bitterness and hatred.

The simple truth is that many mineworkers are now worse off than ever they were in the past.  In the apartheid era, there was no legal requirement for the mining companies to stack men, on concrete shelves three-deep around the walls of stark, utilitarian hostels. This was done in the name of profit.

This form of accommodation is no longer generally acceptable although it still exists.  Families may now join their male breadwinners.  But rather than provide accommodation suitable for families, the companies have turned increasingly to outsourced labour.

What this has meant is that labour brokers compete, constantly cutting prices, to win contracts on the mines. In what the unions have dubbed a mad race to the bottom, it is hungry workers and their families that pay the price.

Such conditions, along with a perceived “too cosy” relationship between the long-established NUM leadership and mine managements, provided the opportunity for the emergence of newer unions. One such was Amcu, established more than a decade ago in the coalfields of Mpumalanga.

Amcu was founded by disgruntled members of the NUM and, once established, affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), that has its roots in the Black Consciousness Movement.  In the 1994 transition period, Nactu flirted briefly with the idea of affiliation to the Pan Africanist Congress before deciding to remain politically independent.

Amcu has now emerged in the platinum sector posing as the defender of worker interests and promising to fight for a living wage, better pay and equal rights for all.  It found a ready audience throughout the sector where there is growing anger at job losses and outsourced labour.

Lonmin, for example, employs up to 27 000 workers, 10 000 of whom are “outsourced”.  These outsourced miners do the same work at often much less than the minimum wage and without the benefits of housing, health care and rations.

These are the men who, with their families, live in the sprawl of squatter camps that now surround the various mines.  Here, amid squalor and hopelessness, anger and resentment fester.  This is the source and, unless it is addressed, more tragedy is likely to follow.

Posted in: Commentary