Four days after the bloodletting that has become known as the Marikana massacre, this column supported the call for a comprehensive and independent inquiry. And it noted, reflecting a widespread view within the labour movement: “The Lonmin tragedy is a wake-up call that South Africa will ignore at its peril.”
Because, what had already been noted by a number of observers was that a sad, often ugly and very human history lay behind the events around the Lonmin mine in August 2012. The warning signs of popular desperation and of official neglect — common to many communities around the country —were obvious to any who looked.
The conditions in which the miners survived and the social volatility this represented were clearly outlined as early as 2007 in a report produced by the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF) of the South African Council of Churches. It was ignored by mine management, local and national government, the police and the dominant union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Then, just days before two bursts of police gunfire on August 16 cut down 112 miners, killing 34, the BMF produced another report. “Living in the Platinum Mines Fields” highlighted again the volatile situation as it painted a grim picture of mining communities mired in desperate poverty.
Squalid living conditions, and hard work coupled with indebtedness in a violent crime ridden environment, contributed toward mounting resentment among the miners. This was exacerbated by a perception that trade unions, the supposedly democratically controlled shields of the workers, had been mere stepping stones to wealth and privilege for the few.
The NUM provided classic examples of those who had made the transition from worker leaders to the upper echelons of big business. Former NUM general secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa, former deputy general secretary Marcel Golding and one-time NUM negotiator Irene Charnley all now have billionaire status. And former NUM president James Matlatsi seemed to move seamlessly from union boss to chair of AngloGold Ashanti.
The fact that NUM general secretary Frans Baleni last year accepted a 108 per cent increase to take his basic pay to R77 000 a month, also rankled. But throughout the mining sector, there are numerous examples of careerism within union ranks, with full time shop stewards, enjoying special privileges, becoming removed from the rank and file. A number have also taken charge of human resources departments for managements.
Little wonder then that justified anger at an employer spilled over to include the NUM leadership and, by extension, all trade unions. What seems to have been largely lost in discussions about Marikana is the fact that many — perhaps most — of the miners who deserted the NUM did not initially seek out another union. A folk memory came into play and rank and file democratic worker committees were formed.
But when representatives of these workers’ committees approached management, they were rebuffed. Lonmin refused to deal with these apparently ad hoc groups; they insisted that the company could only deal with “the leaders” of unions. The result was that many deserting miners joined the National Union of Metalworkers; many more chose the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union that was trying actively to recruit.
Here are lessons for all sides, not least for the unions themselves. But the common strand throughout these actions and the memories that lay behind them is the demand for democracy, for workers to have a direct say not only about their wages and working conditions, but in the lives of themselves and their families.
As most unions argue, a system of exploitation may lie a the root of the problem. However, within that framework many mistakes were made, along with sins of omission and commission. Unionists supporting the call for an independent inquiry hoped that these matters would soon be laid bare, that rumour and myth would make way for solid facts on which action could be taken.
This hope was perhaps naive because, a year down the line from what is now recognised as a tipping point or watershed, there is little evidence that those in authority have taken this on board. After ten months, the judicial commission under Judge Ian Farlam is stalled — bogged down by arguments over legal funding.
However, as this column reported a year ago, there was also concern that “the government may end up merely papering over wells of bitterness and anger that are straining to erupt”. Behind this lay an awareness that authorities often find it much easier to blame a single group or individual for a tragedy; that, in this case, it might be thought advisable to avoid exposing uncomfortable truths.
This concern has been vindicated, not least by sometimes inflammatory statements made in defence of the NUM by several government minister and by Ramaphosa. There was also the clumsy attempt by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe to maintain that a young immigrant Swedish socialist was solely responsible for “the anarchy on the platinum belt”.
Even more worrying, is the continuing silence from parliament to a simple question posed by Congress of the People leader, Terror Lekota only days after the killings: who, contrary to regulations, ordered that the police should use live ammunition at Marikana? At the same time explanations were sought as to why the Lonmin management had refused to respond to the request by the striking workers to address them only hours before the 112 were gunned down.
Clear answers would not have jeopardised the judicial inquiry, but would have gone some way to lighten an atmosphere heavy with suspicion, rumour and allegations of hypocrisy and worse. These answers might also have helped ease the pain of the wives and families of the slain miners who arrived today by taxi from Mthatha at the boulder-strewn killing grounds known as Wonderkop.
But it is a pain that the country should share. Marikana is a wake-up call to every concerned citizen to consider the causes of the tragedy in order to be able to say, with hope: Never again.