A wake-up call SA will ignore at its peril

Posted on September 5, 2012


Produced for Zambia Bulletin&Record, August issue

“I fear the wheels are starting to come off.” Shortly before he died last year, and with tears in his eyes, Henry — “Squire” — Makgothi provided this assessment of South Africa to a small group of friends. A former deputy secretary-general of the governing African National Congress (ANC) Makgothi’s disappointment was triggered by reports of high level corruption and, above all, by what the police still refer to as “unrest incidents” around the country.

That he felt so deeply saddened was understandable: he had devoted all of his adult life to the anti-apartheid cause as a loyal member of both the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP). A qualified teacher, he was banned from the profession, eked out a living as a bus driver and clerk before being charged with treason and later served a ten-year prison term, eight of them on Robben Island, before escaping into exile.

Last year, as we sat around a table in Johannesburg, he warned that, unless “something is done, things are going to get worse”. However, even at his gloomiest, he could probably never have foreseen the sort of tragedy that unfolded at Lonmin’s Marikana mine on Thursday, August 16. Then, in two short bursts of automatic gunfire, 34 striking miners lay dead, another 78 wounded, some of them seriously.

Scenes of the carnage flashed around the world and comparisons were hastily drawn with what had happened at Sharpeville in 1960 and Bisho in 1992, both cases where the proclaimed forces of law and order had fired on and killed many protestors. However, such comparisons are not strictly accurate because the strikers were not unarmed men and women.

But there are parallels, not the least of which is the international reaction. As one British commentator noted only hours after the first scenes of the shootings made headlines news: “There goes any hope of foreign direct investment — at least for the time being.”

However. there is a tendency to regard what happened at Lonmin in isolation from the other, almost daily, upheavals that so concerned Henry Makgothi. This would be a mistake, because they all stem from similar causes.

These were underlined in a report produced just days before the tragic shooting a Marikana. Produced by the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF) of the South African Council of Churches, the report painted a grim picture of desperate poverty among miners and their families.

From the report, it is clear that many miners can rightly claim that their material conditions 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.

Migrant workers from as far afield as Zambia, mainly Barotseland, Malawi and Mozambique, were crammed into this form of housing along with South Africans from far flung rural areas. It was judged by the companies to be the most efficient — and profitable — way to house a captive workforce. But the hostels were at least weather proof and the miners were provided with food rations and access to free basic health care.

After 1994 the single sex migrant labour hostels became, at least to a large degree, obsolete. Freedom of movement was guaranteed and recruitment was concentrated more within South Africa. 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 workers for 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. On the Lonmin operations, the workforce is at any time between 24,000 and 27,000 strong. Of this number, at least 10,000 are outsourced workers.

On smaller mines in the region, such as Aquarius Platinum, 9,000 of the 11,000 miners are reported to be contract workers. This situation is exacerbated by a system of differential bonus payments and the fact that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), as the major union in the sector, has tended to ignore minority protests that have, in recent years, led to some NUM members defecting to a rival union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

Amcu was formed 11 years ago on the coalfields in the north east of South Africa by a group of disgruntled members of NUM. However, NUM officials, backed by the SACP, continue to attack Amcu, claiming that it was set up and financed by mining houses to disrupt NUM.

But the fact that there should be considerable disgruntlement among rank and file members of NUM, across the board, is not surprising. In July, for example, information was leaked from within NUM that revealed that the general secretary, Frans Baleni, had accepted a R40,000 a month increase, taking his basic pay to R77,000 a month.

Baleni justified this on the basis that it was a “market related” package and NUM instituted an internal inquiry to establish who had leaked the information to the media. Also angering miners on Lonmin operations is the fact that the first general secretary of NUM, Cyril Ramaphosa, now a multi-millionaire businessman, is one of the directors of Lonmin.

Other NUM members also fume because former leading NUM officials linked to the ruling party are now wealthy business people. Adding fuel to the fires of discontent that continue to flare up around the country are reports of corruption at official levels and a consequent lack of service delivery to poor communities.

What is now being referred to as the “Marikana massacre” is just one such incident, although on a more horrific scale than others. But official circles are now making much of the fact that the striking miners were armed. This ignores the tradition among South African miners — and other migrant labourers in the country — 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.

But if this aspect, as well as the rivalry between trade unions, comes to dominate the commission of inquiry, the government may end up merely papering over wells of bitterness and anger that are straining to erupt. The Lonmin tragedy is a wake-up call that South Africa will ignore at its peril.

Posted in: Reports abroad