Lonmin crisis: A tinderbox of discontent
It was only late on Wednesday afternoon, with the sun disappearing behind the koppie where about 3 000 striking Lonmin workers had set up camp that any telling action transpired.
A media circus had been perched all day on the open veld to the west of the Nkanini informal settlement, where some of the workers live in appalling conditions. The journalists, right behind the 30 vehicle police laager arranged about 150m from the miners, had their eyes trained on the "action" while their cars faced the opposite direction, ready for flight should the need arise.
Wednesday, however, presented no violence in the week-long strike on one of Lonmin's three mining operations. With disarmament negotiations collapsing earlier in the day and the miners now expressing their defiance through spirited song, the air was that of a colonial era military standoff – guns versus spears – and yet one could not shake the feeling that the day was being wasted by empty posturing on both sides.
Then, at about 5.30pm, a convoy of cars bearing National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) president Senzeni Zokwana arrived and parked near the centre of the police laager.
Zokwana and some miners were whisked into an armoured police vehicle and driven a hundred or so metres to address his "constituency" from within the Nyala. After pleading with the unreceptive workers to return to work and refusing to step out of the Nyala, Zokwana hurriedly left the scene, tail firmly tucked between his legs.
The arrival of rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) president Joseph Mathunjwa, merely minutes later, was a contrasting affair. Flanked by two colleagues, Mathunjwa initially refused to go into the Nyala (a point he repeatedly stressed during his sunset address), preferring to make a meal of it by trekking to the assembled crowd on foot.
He was persuaded against the stunt by the police and task-force operatives. While he could have been in some danger, more importantly, it would have been too obvious a signal of the changing guard at Lonmin, even for the journalists fenced off behind a human barrier of tactical response teams from various policing precincts.
Mathunjwa's address was a lesson in crowd control, peppered with slogans and choice phrases signifying allegiance. "You are not germs, you are people just like us," he shouted in imperfect Xhosa via an address system to a gradually warming response. "No one is going to get fired … but I must let you know that police have declared this a security zone."
Mathunjwa said that it was a disgrace that 18 years into democracy, workers were still earning R4 000 a month. He asked workers to trust him to help broker favourable conditions for a return to work, before calling on the workers' leaders to air grievances. Within 45 minutes, with dusk yielding to night, Mathunjwa was kept clear of journalists and zipped away.
Once again, the assembled workers had spoken. Just as at Implats, where the NUM's embarrassment was neutered by Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi, the writing was on the wall for the NUM at Lonmin.
Earlier in the day, workers boasted of how undaunted they were by the police presence. On Tuesday afternoon, five hippos had posted close to the koppie, brandishing tear gas canisters and weapons in front of dancing workers, they said. Clad in brown slacks and a green and black tracksuit jacket, a young, clean-shaven Xhosa-speaking spokesperson who identified himself as Nzuza said: "We didn't run, so they left."
Nzuza said a helicopter, which had been circling around the gathered workers, also lowered its orbit to reveal armed soldiers before flying off. On Wednesday, he told journalists: "The police said they want to give us feedback from management but there's nothing they are coming with. They want to arrest us as leaders so this [strike] can end. We want the employer to come here. [Lonmin CEO] Ian Farmer must come. [Vice-president human capital and external affairs Barnard] Mokwena is just a messenger."
Nzuza told journalists that the men were not assembled under a specific union banner and that the strike might have been started by rock-drill operators, but "all of Lonmin" was represented. His fellow spokesperson, a taller man carrying two spears with a lime green quilt draped around his back claimed Wednesday's negotiations with police broke down because the workers realised that "NUM members were in the hippos, those very same people who killed us" on Saturday. "Which policemen can speak fanakalo?" he asked.
The miners, speaking via peer representation, said they had been congregating on the "mountain" since Sunday after shots were allegedly fired at them on Saturday at the nearby Wonderkop hostel allegedly "by snipers in red National Union of Mineworkers T-shirts", killing two workers.
They have since embarked on a retaliation campaign they say, with casualties including policemen and security guards. A man found lying in crucifixion position on the edge of the koppie on Tuesday with his head split open and stab wounds to the torso, had apparently committed the cardinal sin of "fishing for information". His lifeless body was left on display the entire day as a warning to non strikers.
Police spokesperson Dennis Adriao said: "From the police's side, we want to reach an amicable end to this situation. We need the workers to disarm and disperse. We have spoken to the workers. We have spoken to union leaders, workers and mine management. If there are no results today, we'll be forced to act."
On Thursday evening, the police carried out their threat, killing several workers in addition to the 10 casualties earlier in week, which included two policemen.
The unprotected strike began late last week, with about 3000 rock-drill operators congregating on Friday and allegedly intimidating employees. They have since set their salary demands at R12 500 a month, for the lowest of workers, which includes rock-drill operators and their assistants.
As was the case at Implats in February, a public blame game ensued between the NUM and Amcu. Mathunjwa, squeezing in a final word during an SAFM broadcast on Wednesday morning, told general secretary of the NUM, Frans Baleni: "Don't resort to violence when you lose members. Freedom of association. In 1994 we voted for that freedom." The NUM, meanwhile, has maintained that the violence is part of an intimidation strategy. "Eastern Platinum is ready to work," Baleni said earlier in the programme. "I met workers yesterday, 5 000 of them … Let all the killers be arrested, even if they are NUM members."
Most of the striking workers return to Wonderkop hostel after their daily meetings at the koppie. At a press conference at Lonmin a day earlier, Baleni said: "As our members are alleging, all violence is emanating from this desperately small union. All arrests emanate from this particular union. Confirmation of that will soon come."
Lonmin's Mokwena said that Amcu had 21% membership across the bargaining units. However, this looks likely to rise as the NUM has continued to bleed members among mineworkers. Trying to find workers openly aligned to the NUM is a tall order at Wonderkop due to disaffection and intimidation.
Lonmin stated on Thursday afternoon: "The striking rock-drill operators remain armed and away from work. This is illegal under the Labour Relations Act. Consequently, and in keeping with the terms of a court order granted to Lonmin on August 11 2012, the illegal strikers have today [Thursday August 16] been issued with a final ultimatum to return to work by their next shift on Friday August 17 or face dismissal… As a result of the disruption, Lonmin has so far lost six days of mined production, representing approximately 300 000 tons of ore, or 15 000 Platinum-equivalent ounces."
Crispen Chinguno, a PhD candidate at the Wits school of social science who spent the past year studying patterns of violence in platinum mines in the Rustenburg area, said violence had become routine in strikes in the region.
"Workers feel that it adds both positive and negative value," he said. "At Implats, where workers were also demanding a salary adjustment outside of a bargaining agreement (R9 000), they ended up getting more than R8 000. The strike was illegal, some were dismissed, but most of them got their jobs back. From that perspective, the workers feel the use of violence is working for them. The negative aspects are some job losses, injuries and death." Chinguno believes that as is already happening, the pattern could replicate in other mines. Deaths have recently occurred at Aquarius Platinum's Kroondal mine.
The high level of shop-floor disgruntlement with established unions like the NUM opens the door for other unions who promise workers better quality representation. This is often described, as it is by the NUM, for example, as violent, opportunistic and unethical recruitment.
Chinguno, whose research took him to Aquarius, Implats, Lonmin and Anglo Platinum believes that a further explanation for the violence is the fact that workers have become more fragmented than before. Some are residing in informal settlements outside of the mines, some still live in hostels and some black workers occupy more skilled positions than others. Violence is used as a way of enforcing solidarity.
Chinguno said Amcu's position was that of the NUM 30 years ago, an upstart union stepping in to fill a void of disgruntlement. While Amcu cannot be directly linked to the violence, he said interviews with high-level Amcu leaders revealed that they understood violence as the workers' strategy of entrenching a majority.