The Farlam commission has held the first of three public seminars to investigate the underlying causes of the August 16 2012 massacre.
At the first of three public seminars held at Wits University on Monday, the department of labour said workers often bypass the union representatives, which leads to spontaneous strikes.
On Monday, Ian Macun, director of collective bargaining at the department of labour, said: "The starting point is to see the question in context, which is South Africa, where the majority of workers remain in lower income groups, and reside in areas where services are suboptimal. Many are still subject to treatment in the workplace that gives rise to unhappiness.This gives rise to spontaneous worker action," he said in his presentation, entitled "Workers bypassing unions: How to respond?"
The Marikana commission of inquiry is holding the public seminars to investigate the underlying causes of the August 16 2012 massacre.
Macun said workers felt disaffected by their union representatives, and that management should not respond to this by seeking legal or state intervention.
It was important to realise that public authorities should not interfere in the affairs of trade unions, although the state could facilitate talks and assist in drafting charters.
Management should seek to have functioning systems and there was a possibility that worker committee structures needed to be revisited, Macun said.
He said the critical question posed by Marikana was whether change in the South African work place has gone far enough for workers.
Macun added that it was in the interests of trade unions to facilitate their own regeneration.
Advocate Geoff Budlender, evidence leader at the commission, on Monday said until now the focus of the commission has been on "phase one", which is the events of the week of August 16, leading to the killings of 34 miners.
During the second phase, the commission is supposed to look at the underlying causes of the massacre, including the migrant labour system and collective bargaining.
The commission has invited various experts and industry players to give submissions on the broader issues at play at Marikana. Budlender said the format, public seminars, was chosen as the evidence does not quite lend itself to the quasi-judicial format used by the commission so far.
He said the commission's interest in the topics chosen was not theoretical, but was concerned with the "possible causal effects" of the topics. Monday's topic was bargaining arrangements in the platinum industry.
Les Kettledas, deputy director general in the labour department who chaired Monday's session, said the seminars were important not only for the "seach for the truth behind Marikana", but also because labour unrest continues in the Rustenburg area.
Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town, spoke about post-apartheid trade union strengths and weaknesses.
He said there was a paradox in the success achieved by trade unions, in that many unions became the victims of their own success.
While unions had succeeded in gaining influence in society and growing membership, as well as significant gains in improving the working conditions of workers and their wages, their size was now a problem.
It was now very difficult to service every workplace and to meet with every worker, and this created social distance, said Buhlungu.
Unions had also become too close to management and the institutionalisation of trade unionism meant that decisions were often taken at a national level, not from the core worker base upwards.
He said it was essential that the issue of strike funds be debated seriously, because the levels of desperation among striking workers were immediately visible, sometimes from the first week of a strike. Meanwhile, unions were earning "millions" monthly from membership fees, and union representatives were not suffering during strikes like ordinary workers were.
On April 9, the commission will host its second seminar focusing on migrancy, and its third will be hosted on April 16, focusing on strike violence.