Four years ago last week 34 striking miners were gunned down by police at Marikana in what now suspended police chief Riah Phiyega described as “representing the best of responsible policing”. Their deaths followed another ten in the week leading up to that fateful day.
But the deaths of those 44 workers should not be seen in isolation, as a series of aberrant acts culminating in massacre. The circumstances surrounding those deaths provide a bloody and tragic lesson about the reality of South Africa’s mineral wealth. Marikana should become a reminder of a brutal industrial history and a symbol for the struggle to improve the lives, especially of miners, but also of workers, everywhere.
On August 16, 17 strikers at Marikana died very publicly in a hail of automatic gunfire. Another 17 were found later at what has officially been labelled “Scene 2”. They were apparently running away from the firing and evidence revealed that some were shot in the back and others at close range.
As shocking as this is, most of the 34 and the ten in the preceding week, died there and then. But in rural areas throughout the sub continent, thousands of miners have died — and continue dying — horrific and lingering deaths in often desperate poverty, their lungs ravaged by the dust accumulated during their labour underground. They too are victims of the system that gave us Marikana.
Ordering paramilitary crowd control in a parliamentary democracy, the use of automatic weapons and live ammunition is therefore only one question that needs to be addressed. The bigger, underlying, question is the conditions under which many miners still live and the chaos of the legislative framework that applies to them in terms of compensation.
It was this that led to the frustration and anger that triggered not only the strike at Marikana and the earlier confrontation at Implats. Similar conditions, although even more brutal, lay behind the strike that erupted in Johannesburg during this week, 70 years ago.
In the week starting August 12, 1946, between 60 000 and 70 000 miners, members of the African Mineworkers’ Union, came out on strike, some staging an underground “sit-in”. Their protest was savagely put down, mainly through the use of bullets, batons and bayonets.
By the end of that week, 12 miners were dead,1 200 wounded and both the strike and the union were broken. It took decades before union organisation again took root. And it did so in much the same conditions that promoted the 1946 strike and would play a part in 2012 at Marikana.
This is part of the reality that gave the South African economy what has often been referred to as its “golden backbone”; the financial and industrial development based on mineral riches. But such riches came at an horrendous cost in human terms.
Because, in order to extract those riches, the health, lives and wellbeing of thousands of men throughout the region were sacrificed. And so, for more than a century, mining devastated families and communities while creating vast family fortunes and enriching investors in Europe and in countries such as the United States.
From the mountains of Lesotho and the lowlands of Transkei, to Swaziland and as far afield as Malawi and Zambia, there are the graves of thousands of men who died slow, painful and premature deaths from silicosis and tuberculosis caused by breathing the fine dust in the stopes and tunnels of South Africa’s mines.
In the same villages where these graves lie, there are men of succeeding generations, many frail and looking aged beyond their years. Their rasping breath and slow movements mark them out as the walking dead from the mines.
This is the largely hidden, unquantified cost of extracting mineral wealth from deep below the soils of South Africa. It is the basis of the class action court case launched in 2013 on behalf of miners and their dependents suffering and dying from silicosis, victims of a system that relied on cheap and readily disposable labour.
But that case is likely to drag on for a decade or more and, as campaigning lawyer Richard Spoor points out, 20% of the original claimants have already died since the case began.
At the same time the legal confusion about compensation continues with mine owners being legally responsible for health and safety while employers — usually companies contracted to work on and in the mines — are responsible for accidents. The Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (Coida) and the Occupational Diseases in Mines and Works Act (Odimwa) are at odds.
Odimwa provides for lung diseases only among miners while Coida covers all occupational injuries and diseases sustained by any worker. Both are financed by employer contributions and make it impossible for a worker to sue an employer for compensation. As such the system has been described as “the cheapest bit of pro-boss insurance available”.
Talks are continuing about rationalising the system. In the meantime, although conditions on many mines have have marginally improved and wages have increased, there is still a long way to go to achieve a fair and decent living for all miners.
On the platinum belt, for example, basic wages have risen in four years from roughly R4 600 a month to R7 900, but insufficient decent housing means thousands of miners living in squalid conditions in the “squatter camps” surrounding almost every mine.
So long as these conditions continue and the issues of a “decent living wage” and compensation remain unresolved, industrial peace in the mining areas will remain elusive.