Teetering along the brink of the abyss

Posted on August 9, 2022


(First published in Fin24 and in City Press, South Africa)

The past few weeks have highlighted more clearly than ever, that the authority and the rule of law within South Africa’s constitutional parliamentary dispensation has gone beyond merely fraying at the edges. Also how confusion can be spread, with potentially dangerous consequences, by the manipulation of news.

This manipulation becomes possible because there are too few well trained and even specialist journalists on the ground to unearth the facts behind confusing and often contradictory statements by various authorities and individuals: in the name of a spurious concept of “balance”, contradictory statements are published, without checking their veracity or providing proper context.

But to provide context requires background knowledge. This tends to take even more time than the careful checking of facts: time is money. Yet, in the ongoing economic crisis, the media, when not captured, is an essential public service in any form of democracy.

The public has a right to know, as clearly and accurately as possible, what is going on in society at large and, especially in areas that affect the day-to-day lives of citizens. In the absence of this, fake news, downright lies and propaganda can be promoted by politicians keen to hide their failings or by ambitious and unscrupulous groups and individuals keen to further their agendas.

Prime example this week was the flurry of news and commentary on the illegal — “Zama-Zama” — miners in and around West Village outside Krugersdorp. This followed the horrific gang rape and robbery of a film crew near old mine tailings. The focus was on illegal mining and the arrest of more than 100 Zama-Zamas, most said to be foreigners from Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

But such mining, without any control or regulation, has been going on for decades. Many miners do come from neighbouring states that were used, from 1886, as labour reservoirs by mining companies. In the modern era of sub-contracting and labour broking, miners are still recruited from these countries and, according to social agencies working in the area, some have effectively been used as Zama-Zamas.

In what is a legacy of a history of cheap labour, these miners, sometimes working at depths of 2km and more, tend to stay underground for three months at a time. They are effectively controlled by heavily armed gangs working for syndicates that process and buy gold.

According to West Village residents, these gangs have, for years, instituted a reign of terror in their community. They say there was no response to complaints to the police and local council about regular rapes and robberies. Until last week when eight young models were raped and a film crew robbed,

Now, perhaps ironically, in the week before national Women’s Day on Tuesday, the focus is on illegal miners and not on what West Village residents have complained is a veritable plague of rape and intimidation. The failure of government to regulate and so to allow a multi-billion rand criminal enterprise based on labour exploitation to proliferate also seems largely swept under the carpet.

Context is vital. Just as it is in the ongoing confusion about what happened — and is happening — regarding the country’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers. Numsa last week provided a frightening glimpse of how well financed groups could behave when social order breaks down and the rule of law is ignored.

The union’s national congress was interdicted by the Labour Court following complaints by a number of regional leaders and Numsa’s second deputy president, Ruth Ntlokotse of major breaches of the Numsa constitution, of intimidation and delegate rigging. The complainants had all been suspended by the leadership and, along with the Mpumalanga region of the union, barred from the congress.

Despite the interdict by a court, and the fact that the order was properly delivered, the congress went ahead, with squads of security guards, drawn from two private companies and paid for by the union, taking over the entrances to the Cape Town International Convention Centre, the foyer and first floor of the main building. The CTICC staff either said nothing or simply disappeared.

The only two journalists present, Khulekai Magubane of Fin24 and me, were ordered out by security guards. I protested that the CTICC is a Cape Town facility that does not belong to Numsa; that only facilities rented by the union should be under their jurisdiction. Not so, shouted Numsa spokesperson, Phakamile Hhuli-Majola: “We control this centre while we’re here.” Burly security guards enforced her claim.

To justify the fact that the congress would go on, Hlubi-Majola went on to maintain, on national radio, that the suspended members and the Mpumalanga region were no longer barred and were in. Cape Town attending the congress; that this was sufficient to bypass the interdict. It was not sufficient, and the attendance claim was untrue. Even a single call to Ruth Ntlokotse revealed that she was at a union workshop in Johannesburg.

This, in legal terminology, constitutes mala fides (acting in bad faith and with intent to deceive), which makes for the criminal case of contempt of court. So it seems that Numsa is in deep political, social, judicial and perhaps financial trouble. The union is in danger of fragmenting, while the national leadership, admitting a July congress bill of R39 million, today (Subs: Friday) faces contempt of court charges.

In a normal parliamentary system such charges would be brought by the courts and the police. In the absence of any action, Ntlokotse and other Numsa dissident members laid the charges, naming specifically, general secretary Irvin Jim and union president Andrew Chirwa.

Regions in the meantime, have called for transparency regarding the investment companies, loans and share deals done involving Numsa companies with assets estimated at R2 billion. However, the leadership still exercises apparent control of both union and investments while apparently continuing to enjoy the support of the wealthy self proclaimed “socialist” philanthropist, “Roy” Singham.

As we continue to teeter along the brink of being a failed state, a well-known local labour lawyer noted: “This will drag on and on. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for something to happen.”

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