Marikana: the pain SA ignores at its peril

Posted on March 8, 2014


Four days after the bloodletting that has become known as the Marikana massacre, my Inside Labour 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.” Now, 19 months later and with the strike on the platinum belt having gone on for nearly two months, that warning seems even more appropriate. Below is an updated commentary that first appeared on the first anniversary of the August 16 bloodshed.

It was not just the bloodletting on August 16, 2012 that left a well of anger and bitterness among mineworkers throughout the platinum belt; behind it lies a history of desperation and official neglect. It is a combination of all these factors that has driven miners, despite incredible hardship, to hold out on strike now for nearly two months. This tenacity is testimony to the level of anger and determination of workers throughout the region who see themselves as branches of the bloodied tree of Marikana.

Those commentators who express bewilderment at the bitterness expressed and the willingness of the workers to suffer and continue to fight, ignore the sad, often ugly and very human history that lies behind the reality on the platinum belt.  The warning signs of popular desperation and of official neglect — common to many communities around the country — were, and are, obvious to any who look.

The conditions in which the miners survive and the social volatility this represents was clearly outlined as early as 2007 in a report produced by the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF) of the South African Council of Churches.  The report 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 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. Ramaphosa, a Lonmin director in 2012, is now also deputy president of the ANC.

The fact that NUM general secretary Frans Baleni accepted a 108 per cent increase in 2012 to take his basic pay to R77 000 a month, also rankled among miners, many of whom survive on R4 500 a month.  But throughout the mining sector, there are numerous examples of careerism within union ranks with full time shop stewards enjoying special privileges and 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.

Unionists supporting the call for an independent inquiry hoped that all the sins of omission and commission would be laid bare; that rumour, myth and propaganda would make way for solid facts on which action could be taken. Above all, that justice would be done in terms of those responsible for the carnage.

This hope was perhaps naive because, 19 months 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.  The judicial commission under Judge Ian Farlam continues to drag on. But it has unearthed some frightening documentary evidence pointing to collusion between Lonmin and the forces of the state.

While the commission has, to a large extent, been ignored by the media, a documentary film, Miners Shot Down, that uses police, mine security and news footage of the massacre, along with documentary evidence, has been produced. It amounts to a damning indictment and is a clear antidote to the concerns expressed in the Inside Labour column, that “the government may end up merely papering over wells of bitterness and anger that are straining to erupt”.

Behind this concern 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.  Besides, an election was due and has now been announced to take place on May 7.

In some respects, this concern has been vindicated, not least by sometimes inflammatory statements made in defence of the NUM by several government ministers.  There was also the clumsy attempt last year by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe to maintain that a young immigrant Swedish socialist was solely responsible for “the anarchy on the platinum belt”.

Then there is the ludicrous situation of 270 of the striking miners, some of them wounded and permanently disabled by police bullets, who have been charged with murder under the notorious common purpose doctrine. This holds that the striking miners were responsible for the police having to open fire and were, therefore, the guilty parties.

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 refused to respond to the request by the striking workers to address them only hours before the 112 were gunned down. Miners Shot Down continues to ask these questions.

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.

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.

Posted in: Commentary