Marikana — and SA’s frayed social fabric

Posted on September 24, 2012


The mayhem at Marikana cast the spotlight on the platinum sector and on mining in general.  And while the concentration was on wages, a myriad other issues emerged, some all too briefly — and not the least of them the living conditions endured by many miners, 18 years after the transition from apartheid.

The utilitarian single sex hostels of that era still exist and shack “farms” comprising single room hovels without any amenities and rented out at between R500 and R800 a month have mushroomed around mine properties.  These are issues that are as much at the root of the recent troubles as inadequate wages.

So too is the fact that traditional authorities among the Bafokeng actively resist the provision of amenities such as potable water and sanitation, fearing that this will encourage permanent settlements for miners, mainly from the Eastern Cape.  And many of the migrant workers living in these abysmal conditions are also unemployed, some laid off as recently as last year.  They remain, increasingly desperate, hoping, almost against hope, that they will eventually find work.

It is against this background that the 22 per cent pay rise agreement struck at Lonmin seems to have been met with an almost unanimous sigh of relief, along with the expressed belief that the solution had been found;  that a particularly tragic episode was now behind us.   This view was evident as the media focus moved to the knock-on effect the Marikana settlement has had — and may still have — especially throughout the mining sector.

It is a focus that concentrates on wages and the possible and probable effects these may have on the national economy.  The consensus among mainstream economists seems to be that such interim double digit wage deals are bad because they are inflationary.

This may be so,  but need not be.  There is also the positive aspect that, with more money in their hands, miners and their families will be able to buy more, so increasing the demand for products.  Unfortunately, this often means imported products, so raising another issue that is seldom adequately addressed.

In any event, better pay, even at the level of R11 000 for rock drill operators, will not solve the lack of amenities, the usurious demands of the shack farm loan sharks, the mashonisas, or the fact that perhaps more than a third of miners are employed through outsourced companies who may pay considerably less.

For example, and despite the comment by National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) general secretary Frans Baleni, the 1 200 mineworkers retrenched last week from a Lonmin development shaft, were not employed by Lonmin:  they worked for construction company, Murray and Roberts.  No details are yet available in this case, but construction company employees generally earn less than their mining company counterparts.

It is also accepted that at least 30 per cent of mineworkers are employed via outsourced labour brokers.  Yet throughout all the argument about Marikana and the subsequent eruptions this issue was not dealt with in any depth and rumour abounded.  Contrary to one widespread item of gossip, businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, an ANC executive member, Lonmin director and former general secretary of NUM, does not own a labour broking company.

However, the ANC investment arm, Chancellor House, has mining interests and one of the fiercest critics of the mining industry, the SA Communist Party (SACP), has a connection with a controversial new platinum mine.  Matlotlo Trading 115 is a wholly owned subsidiary of Masincazelane Trust, the “social investment arm” of the SACP.  It owns 10 per cent of Toboti Platinum at Kalkfontein.

Matlotlo is in partnership in Kalkfontein with major industry player, Impala Platinum.  Implats has a 20 per cent stake in Toboti.

So while there clearly needs to be a thorough investigation into the role played by mining companies, there is also a need for considerable introspection on the part of shareholding entities and their beneficiaries.  But until and unless all the issues raised by the Marikana moment — and which apply to the country as a whole — are comprehensively addressed, the social fabric of South Africa will continue to become dangerously frayed.

Posted in: Commentary