Marikana is the latest chapter in a long saga

Lonmin is able to give its chief executive an annual pay package equivalent to what the average rock-drill operator would take home after 400 years on the job. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Lonmin is able to give its chief executive an annual pay package equivalent to what the average rock-drill operator would take home after 400 years on the job. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Jacob Moilwa (not his real name) is no stranger to the kind of bloodshed that took place at Marikana, something all too common on the platinum fields of South Africa.

As a young man in the 1980s, he took up employment at Impala Platinum in what was then the Bophuthatswana bantustan. Fed up with appalling conditions and pitiful pay, workers at the mine embarked on wildcat strikes. The ensuing violence cost scores of lives and, as at Marikana, was fuelled by union rivalry.

A then-militant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), banned under Boputhatswanan labour law, took advantage of workers' growing disillusionment with local sweetheart union Bonume and rapidly built a strong base at Impala. With a handful of others, Moilwa was instrumental in setting up a branch of the NUM. For his efforts, he was imprisoned and tortured by Boputhatswanan police. After months of bitter struggle, the Impala workers ousted the discredited Bonume and won recognition for the NUM. They forced the company to concede a number of major demands, including a decision to "democratise" the prisonlike hostels.  

Now, two decades later, Moilwa and his comrades must be reeling from the grim historical rerun playing out at Marikana, just a short distance from Impala, where violence erupted again earlier this year. Just as in the early 1990s, union rivalry has fuelled the fires of discontent at Marikana, with the NUM and the Association of Mineworkers and Constructution Union vying for influence.

But, although it feeds into an already volatile situation, union rivalry itself is neither the primary cause of the ongoing violence at Lonmin's mines now, nor, of course, can it explain the unrest at Impala then. Despite the successes of workers fighting for better conditions and pay in confronting one of the most brutal labour regimes in modern history, much remains unchanged. Beyond the cited wage figures, there are the squalid living conditions and endemic violence of the mine world and workers' daily lives.

Statistically speaking, a Marikana massacre occurs many times every year beneath the surface of South Africa's mining badlands. In 2010, 128 legal mineworkers lost their lives. This is a marked improvement on the figure of 309 for 1999, but it is still roughly three times the number of workers who lost their lives in the recent Marikana tragedy.

Permanently incapacitated
That is to say nothing of the hundreds of others who are maimed or permanently incapacitated, or who suffer slow, agonising deaths from silicosis and other industrial diseases.

It is to say nothing of their families languishing in rural ­poverty in the depleted hinterlands of Southern Africa, families whose breadwinners become economic burdens when they are laid off and dumped in their homes to await early death.

To take a step back and put the statistics and stories into historical perspective is to witness a permanent tragedy, one that has unfolded silently over the more than a century of industrial mining in South Africa. It is the country's never-ending underground war with the forces of nature that, like any war, leaves widows in its wake. But rarely do the daily struggles of its victims make headlines. If they did so half as often as fluctuations in the price of precious metals, perhaps real change in the industry would not seem so desperately fanciful.  

In the wake of the killings, two community activists showed me around the townships and squatter camps that lie in the shadows of Lonmin's platinum mining operations. Replace the bleak brick-and-mortar buildings of purpose-built 19th-century European mining towns with a cramped mix of sooty corrugated-iron shacks and cracked reconstruction and development programme shoeboxes and you have a scene from an Émile Zola novel set in 21st-century South Africa.  

Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer, is able to give its chief executive an annual pay package equivalent to what the average rock-drill operator would take home after 400 years on the job. Yet it is unwilling to make good on its modest promises to mining communities: it is unable to fix the burst pipes that leak raw sewage into the rivers running through these sites, spreading waterborne diseases such as ­bilharzia; it is incapable of living up to the easily achievable task of providing effective waste removal and maintaining basic infrastructure.  

The local soccer field lies in disrepair, overrun with weeds as children play in the potholed, dust-blown streets. Whitewashed company statements probably will not have much to say about its failed corporate social responsibility initiative: a hydroponic project that has fallen to ruin. They will not tell you how far the Dickensian wage paid to the least-skilled workers will stretch to provide for a family of four.

Dehumanising conditions
For years before the Marikana massacre, the Bench Marks Foundation, a mining watchdog non-governmental organisation, had been drawing attention to the dehumanising conditions of communities in the platinum-mining heartland. It warned that the mines were waiting to explode. But it cut a Cassandra-like figure. Its words of caution and appeals for change went unheeded. All too often, the media discourse is dominated by one-dimensional economic arguments abstract from any sense of social and political reality.

The mining executives and their shills, polemicists and apologists constantly bemoan what they see as excessive labour regulation and union influence and the supposed high costs of South African labour, despite the fact that wages and salaries as a proportion of national wealth have fallen, relative to profit, in recent decades. In the past 15 years, the richest 20% were the only people to experience growth in real wages, whereas the lowest decile endured the greatest decrease, further entrenching inequality in the most unequal country in the world.   

Lonmin's actions before, during and after the massacre betray a callous disregard for the lives of its workers. In keeping with tradition, the company has handled the recent unrest with wearisome predictability: query and criticism have elicited only stonewalling. And then Lonmin broke its silence with a threat to striking workers, still mourning the loss of their gunned-down peers, to return to work or face dismissal. Although it later backtracked on this heartless act, it carried through a similar threat last year. The mass dismissal was a tool dear to apartheid-era employers and none more so than Impala, which made widespread use of it in the early 1990s when it sacked a record number of workers.  

Amid all this, President Jacob Zuma could no longer maintain his usual hands-off approach, although he might just as well have. In his limp attempt to defuse the situation, we were told that this is a time for mourning, not pointing fingers. How convenient.

Meanwhile, our top cop, Riah Phiyega, unquestioningly absolved the police from any wrongdoing. She said, while the barrels were still hot and the blood still wet, they "shouldn't be sorry".   

In the aftermath of the bloodiest confrontation since the end of apartheid, the heads of officials and bosses should be rolling. In an accountable democracy that is exactly what would be happening. Instead we scapegoat the victims, blaming the poorest and most disenfranchised for their own needless deaths. Sadly, it took a populist such as Julius Malema to say what Zuma is too compromised to say, to articulate the workers' anger, call for social justice and point fingers at those who are to blame.

Life on the mines
No articles or opinion pieces, no commissions of inquiry or mournful politicians' speeches could hope to capture the obnoxious, violent and degrading nature of life on the mines as lucidly and honestly as Zola did in Germinal. That was nearly 130 years ago, around the time gold mining started on the Rand. The similarities with the lives of workers then and now and the overlaps between events at Impala in the 1980s and events at Marikana today underscore the dire lack of meaningful transformation in the mining industry.

It would be madness to think that the tension will simply blow over with a commission of inquiry. The platinum mines may well get back to business as usual, but business as usual has always entailed deplorable levels of violence and misery.

If we are to avoid another Marikana, then this must surely be a turning point in the industry. Perhaps recent events make the best case thus far for rigorous debate on the future of the mining industry, even nationalisation. With this in mind, there is a pressing need to undo the historical amnesia that allowed these deaths to happen. All of this was foreshadowed and, in hindsight, should have been glaringly obvious.

Micah Reddy is a freelance researcher and master's student at Oxford University, who has been researching labour relations on platinum mines

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