/ 30 August 2012

Marikana reflects a democracy in grave danger

NUM president Senzeni Zokwana was chased away by mineworkers who prefer the upstart union Amcu.
NUM president Senzeni Zokwana was chased away by mineworkers who prefer the upstart union Amcu.

Expressed in the broadest terms, it must recognise the inherent dignity of all. Their basic material needs – those needed to live a good and dignified life – must be provided. Similarly, the right of everyone to express his or her views either individually or collectively must be guaranteed.

Even within this broad framework it follows that power cannot be exercised to shout others down, whether, for example, by government omission, such as a lack of delivery of basic goods and services, or by commission, such as when a government or civil society seeks to resolve disputes with violence rather than with respectful, albeit robust, exchange.

Only when the government, civil society and the rest of society are committed to these values does the ideal social practice arise. This, in turn, ensures that constitutional democracy and not violent populism or unaccountable authoritarianism becomes the basic principle of social governance.

How can this kind of practice develop in a society ravaged by 300 years of racist rule and with one of the worst Gini coefficients – indicative of startling inequality – in the world?

The government must be accountable to the public, fastidious in its commitment to the poor, tolerant of criticism and focused on the attainment of the society conceptualised in the Constitution. It is also necessary for civil society to show the vibrancy and principles that characterised the United Democratic Front and trade union federation Cosatu during the struggle for democracy, even when confronted by state-sanctioned violence.

The tragedy that engulfed the Marikana mine shows that these essential conditions may no longer exist. The details and causes of the loss of so many lives will be the subject matter of the newly appointed Farlam inquiry, but seeing the broader implications needs no such task force. They are obvious.

A once-proud union, the National Union of Mineworkers, has lost significant support on the ground. Had it kept its eyes on mining employees, whose basic needs continue to be ignored, the rival Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) could not have constituted itself as a rival. Instead, NUM general secretary Frans Baleni cannot speak to the striking miners for fear of his safety and Cosatu calls Julius Malema "counter-revolutionary" for his Marikana intervention, forgetting that more attention to workers' living conditions and less on high salaries for general secretaries (never mind the ANC conference at the end of this year) would have reduced the fertile soil in which Malema's populism grows.

The government performance also fails to match par. Not only did the absence of a coherent and sustained reaction to the developments at the mine create a power vacuum, but also, according to experts, with too few water cannons and ill-equipped and poorly trained police, the ­government may have failed the ­citizenry. In short, the sickening scenes played out on televisions around the world showed that, in terms of crowd control, there had not been much transformation since the end of apartheid.

A reflective national broadcast by President Jacob Zuma about the Marikana events would have reproduced the kind of leadership that Nelson Mandela displayed decades ago in giving this country its constitutional chance.

Transmission belt
Civil society's inability to act as an effective transmission belt for the legitimate grievances of significant sections of the population, and the divergence between that section of the population and the government it elected create fruitful opportunities for populists. They can blame not only the government and its leadership, but also attack the constitutional structure that should promote the social practices needed if the lot of people such as the striking miners is to be improved.

The Marikana tragedy brings into sharp focus the absence of the governmental and organisational structures necessary for the long-term future of our Constitution.

Ironically, in the absence of any other succour, society again turns to the judiciary to bail it out – a commission of inquiry. Only the judicial institution appears to possess sufficient credibility to assuage the country's anxieties.

But this can only be a short-term solution. Unless the core social questions are addressed speedily and our leadership produces political engagement rather than warfare, our constitutional hopes will be drowned in a tsunami of populist politics. Viewed in this way, Marikana now has become the canary in the constitutional mineshaft.