Two of labour’s greatest modern tragedies in South Africa provided a media focus over the past week or so: Aurora and Marikana. And the latest episodes in these sagas brought to mind two popular expressions: “The buck stops here” and “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
The buck stops here was popularised by former United States president Harry Truman who kept a sign on his desk making this statement. It made the point that responsibility for decisions of the executive and the state ultimately rested with him.
It’s a good principle, not often observed when it comes to decisions and actions that reflect badly on decision makers. And this applies to people in power whether they be in politics, business, trade unions or sport.
The appropriate phrase for all too many of them is “Pass the buck”. In other words claim that responsibility — blame — should be passed on to someone else.
We’ve seen quite a bit of this buck passing in both the Aurora and Marikana cases. With the result that, for all the court decisions and commission findings that supposedly ring in changes, everything at base remains very much the same.
Here I am talking about the conditions that miners find themselves in. In the case of Aurora, miners and, therefore their families, were abandoned for six years by Aurora Empowerment Systems (AES). We will never know the full extent of the suffering they endured.
The Aurora miners had worked without pay and on promises for months before all work stopped and they were deserted. But, according to the AES directors, the buck did not stop with them; others were clearly to blame.
That apparently changed last week, with a court finding that the directors, including President Jacob Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma and Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Zondwa Mandela, were personally responsible for mismanagement that also left 5 300 workers without pay, sustenance or basic services. The buck, the courts ruled, stopped with them. They should pay up.
Surviving miners — several have died, at least one having committed suicide — celebrated this apparent change in their circumstances. But celebrations were premature: circumstances for the miners remained the same. They continue to live in poverty, without work or pay while the directors continue to be accused of flaunting their wealth as they contemplate a legal appeal.
This tragedy unfolded before a labour movement based on the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. If ever there was a cause to rally around and to demand action from the powers that be, this was it.
But little was done as the miners starved and the mines were pillaged. Today, the same appalling conditions of desperation and abject poverty apply to those miners still stranded on mine property without medical care or basic services.
The same applies in mining communities everywhere. Yet the massacre at Marikana and the events leading up to it, were rightly regarded as a wake-up call to government at all levels, to traditional authorities, the mining companies and to unions.
Three years down the line and after 300 days of hearings, the Farlam Commission finally delivered Judge Ian Farlam’s report to President Jacob Zuma. He took nearly three months in order to “apply his mind” to it before release this week.
What the report indicates is that the buck has been passed to what one legal representative at the hearing refers to as “the low-hanging fruit”, police officials and others unnamed and unknown who may have caused death and injury.
It is here that the arguments are raging — and will continue to rage as the buck continues to be passed. However, the wake-up call about the underlying causes of the shame that is Marikana remain unchanged, and not just at that Lonmin mine.
Twenty-one years after the formal transition from apartheid, utilitarian hostels — symbols of virtual slavery — remain. And the fact that mining companies dodged their responsibility to provide decent housing by providing meagre “living out” allowances that exacerbated the problem has also still to be properly addressed.
Overall responsibility for all these matters rests at the highest level. And that is where the buck should stop if anything is really to change.