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Get back to work, or else, Lonmin warns

Mail & Guardian Online reporter

Platinum producer Lonmin has ordered employees to return to work or face dismissal but workers vow to stay on strike after 34 colleagues were killed.

Julius Malema told a gathering at Marikana on Saturday that the National Union of Mineworkers were sellouts, and that the police had no excuse for using live ammunition. (Paul Botes, M&G)

The London-listed company issued a final ultimatum to workers to end their wildcat stayaway three days after the country's worst police violence since the end of apartheid at its Marikana mine.

"The final ultimatum provides RDOs [rock drill operators] with a last opportunity to return to work or face possible dismissal," the company said in a statement.

"Employees could therefore be dismissed if they fail to heed the final ultimatum."

But workers at the mine in the North West province said they will press on with wage demands and slammed a return to work as "an insult" to their colleagues who were gunned down after police failed to disperse strikers on Thursday.

"Expecting us to go back is like an insult. Many of our friends and colleagues are dead, then they expect us to resume work. Never," said worker Zachariah Mbewu, adding that no one would return to work as long as they were still in mourning.

"Some are in prison and hospitals. Tomorrow we are going back to the mountain [protest site], not underground, unless management gives us what we want."

Day of mourning
Zuma on Sunday announced the appointment of an inter-ministerial committee to be led by Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane.

Included in the committee are North West Premier Thandi Modise, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Richard Baloyi, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele and Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Zuma also announced a period of mourning between August 20-26. August 23 has been declared a day for memorial services to be held around the country.     

"The nation is in shock and in pain. We must this week reflect on the sanctity of human life and the right to life as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic. We must avoid finger-pointing and recrimination. We must unite against violence from whatever quarter. We must reaffirm our belief in peace, stability and order and in building a caring society free of crime and violence," Zuma said in a statement.

A story of exploitation
The story of the Marikana mine shootings is that of a trade union that cosied up to big business; of an upstart and populist new union that exploited real frustration to establish itself; and of police failure, writes Justice Malala.

It is a story which exposes South Africa's structural weaknesses too: we are one of the world's top two most unequal societies (with Brazil). Poverty, inequality and unemployment lie at the heart of the shootings this week.

The Lonmin story starts with the 360 000-member National Union of Mineworkers, formed in the 1980s to fight apartheid labour laws. Under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa – ironically now on the board of Lonmin, which owns the mine where the shootings occurred – the union became the biggest affiliate to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), a powerful ally of the ANC.

For more than a decade Cosatu has concentrated on socioeconomic and political issues. Instead of organising on the shop floor it has harried the ANC government to adopt increasingly left-leaning policies. The NUM, one of the two biggest unions within Cosatu, has been at the forefront of these struggles.

Over the past few years the NUM has been split by succession battles inside the ANC, with the current leadership campaigning for ANC president Jacob Zuma to win a second term. The union has paid a heavy price for this. At the Lonmin mines its membership has declined from 66% of workers to 49% and it has lost its organisational rights. Disgruntled and expelled union leaders had in the meantime started a new union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and were organising on the NUM's turf.

The NUM's achilles heel was that its relationship with mine owners and the Chamber of Mines had become too close. Its secretary, Frans Baleni, is a more strident critic of the nationalisation of mines than many business leaders. The union has also allegedly accepted wage settlements that tied workers into years of meagre increases.

Amcu dangled a fat piece of fruit in front of the workers' eyes: rock drillers (who are the core of this strike and do the hardest work underground) earning R4 000 a month were promised R12 500 a month. The union's support in the Lonmin mines shot up to 19% by last month, and it embarked on an illegal strike to force its pay demand.

This week the strike turned violent. On the ground, armed workers are promising to "take a bullet with my fellow workers". Traditional doctors have been anointing strikers with potions, allegedly making them invincible. The Amcu's leaders are preparing for war.

The NUM has lost all credibility and is bleeding members. Its already well-paid secretary, Baleni, was awarded a salary increase of more than 40% last year and his total salary package is just more than R105 000 a month. NUM leaders have refused to get out of police armoured vehicles to address workers. Last year one of them was struck with a brick and lost an eye. They have no cogent plan to end the strike.

The police, too, have lost credibility. Although the indications are that they were shot at, a death count of 34 in three minutes suggests panic, ill-preparedness and fear.

Lonmin saw its chief executive hospitalised with a serious illness two days ago. It is leaderless, then, and has no coherent plan to end the impasse. On Friday it kept a stony silence after days of hapless statements.

This could all have been prevented. Amcu has been organising at other mines in the region and violence flared at Impala Platinum earlier this year, with several people killed in a manner not dissimilar to this week's events. The police failed to act or gather intelligence to prevent a recurrence.

Amcu is also organising among poor workers and their shack settlement communities, which have become no-go zones for police. For these settlements, this is a strike against the state and the haves, not just a union matter.

The political leaders now pouring into the area are flying into hostile territory without a plan. Joseph Mathunjwa, an Amcu leader, told workers: "We're going nowhere. If need be, we're prepared to die."

Families back call for nationalisation
Meanwhile, former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema wasn't pulling punches, when he spoke to several thousand Marikana mineworkers on Saturday. Zuma should step down, he said, as should Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

ANC national executive committee member Cyril Ramaphosa came in for a drubbing as well – with the implication that he was partially responsible for the deaths of the strikers.

Malema said the NUM were sellouts, and that the police had no excuse for using live ammunition.

"You must never retreat, even in the face of death," he told the gathering.

"Many people will die as we struggle for economic freedom." He called on other miners, especially in the surrounding area, to join in solidarity strikes (warning that they could be the next to die if they don't) and told the Marikana group that their calls for wage increases were legitimate.

And although he did not endorse Amcu, he had nothing but scorn for the NUM.

"NUM is a former union … From a militant union … We want leaders who will not sell you out," Malema said.

"President Zuma said to the police they must act with maximum force. He did not say act with restraint. He presided over the murder of our people and therefore he must step down. Not even apartheid government killed so many people ... From today, when you are asked 'Who is your president', you must say 'I don't have a president'."

"Lonmin treat us like dogs," said Thembelani Khonto (24). "When you're underground, it's like you're a slave and they don't know you. But on the surface people who don't do anything in offices are earning more than us."

Siphiwo Gqala (25) said he sometimes spends up to 14 hours a day underground but does not receive overtime pay. "It's dangerous work," he said. "Sometimes you go down there and a rock falls and you die. Big vehicles can come and kill you." Recalling Thursday's massacre, he said: "I've never seen something like that: people killed like chickens. One of my friends is still missing. I don't know if he's in the hospital or the mortuary."

The impact on the community will be far-reaching, added Gqala, who lives in a shack because house rentals are too high. "Women come here from Eastern Cape with their husbands, who are the breadwinners. If someone has five children, how will they live? I have two young brothers depending on me. What if I die? Who's going to look after them?"

The conditions leave people like Gqala looking for radical solutions. "The mine must be nationalised. We support Julius Malema and the youth league for saying the mines must be nationalised. Now they're starting to shoot us. If we die today, all of us must die: we no longer want to work here."

A 22-year-old woman, who did not wish to be named, had lost a loved one in the shooting. "He was shot in cold blood," she said. "My tears have not dried; I cried all day. I'm worried about things like who's going to feed the kids he left behind. No one is going to give the love to his children like their father."

Elizabeth Makana (48) a widow whose brother-in-law was wounded, said: "They treat the miners like dogs. The miners take the risk to dig platinum, but the people who sit in offices make the money."

Lonmin defended its treatment of mine workers. A community development brochure published by the company describes extensive health, education, infrastructure and economic projects in the area. Spokesperson James Clark said: "We absolutely recognise the hugely positive relationship we have with communities living in the area and doing the best we can for them and their families goes to the heart of our business. It's why we do so much around health and education, but we're not complacent. We do the best we can and try to do better every time."

Aubrey Matshiqi, a research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, said: "I think the people of Marikana, particularly the miners, see themselves as the manifestation of the gap between mineral wealth and socioeconomic conditions. The death of so many miners has amplified the extent to which Julius Malema's views on mine nationalisation resonate with the people in the area."

He added: "You have the ANC that some people believe has been too pragmatic and sold out and bent over backwards for foreign capital at the expense of the people. Julius Malema suggests that a better life for all would be possible under someone like him. If he is wrong, you will have populism and disappointment that will lead to conflict."

War zone
The police at Marikana were in a war zone and using rubber bullets against striking miners had no effect, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies has said.

"It was a war zone and the use of rubber bullets and teargas was completely ineffective," Johan Burger was quoted as saying in Sunday's Rapport newspaper.

He dismissed claims that the police were not able to apply crowd control measures.

"They were in the middle of an armed conflict against 3 000 men armed with pangas and firearms ... The armed group charged at the police. They could not allow themselves to be overrun. In that situation I would also have given the order to shoot."

Had the police acted differently, they would have been the ones killed, he said.

The fact the highly-trained national intervention team was on the scene indicated that the police had realised ordinary crowd control measures would not suffice.

He said the commission of inquiry into the shooting, announced by Zuma, should not only look at the police's actions, but consider the matter holistically.

Rapport said meanwhile that the police's use of live ammunition seems to contradict an instruction that only rubber bullets be used as a last resort to quell unrest.

"The use of rubber bullets and shotguns must stop immediately," reads the letter, issued on December 20 2011, by Lieutenant-General Elias Mawela, of the police's operational response unit.

The memo makes reference to Andries Tatane, killed in a protest in Ficksburg in April 2011, when he was shot at close range by a rubber bullet.

"Less lethal methods must be employed to control crowds. Negotiation is still the first option," reads the letter, which was circulated countrywide in the police's top ranks.

Failing this, stun grenades, a water cannon, and a 40mm teargas launcher could be used.

Before police resorted to live ammunition at Marikana, they used a water cannon, rubber bullets, teargas, stun grenades, and shotguns, according to Rapport.

"The extent of the violence must be proportional to the seriousness of the situation," Mawela wrote. – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012, Phillip De Wet, Sapa

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