Marikana: Road forward littered with mines

The short answer is probably not, or at least not yet. But even if the current danger passes, mines and their workers can expect several tough years and the politics engulfing them will not help.

Floyd Shivambu, suspended ANC Youth League spokesperson and now campaign leader for the Friends of the Youth League, told the Mail & Guardian this week that the campaign would be intensified in the coming months and at some stage there would be national mass action to bring the mining industry to a halt.

"This is part of our push for economic transformation in this ­country," said Shivambu. "What is happening now in mines is not separated from the struggle for economic freedom … The immediate goal is improving the living condition of ordinary miners. Linked to that will be state ownership of mines."

Speaking to the M&G this week, expelled youth league leader Julius Malema said the mining revolution was not a call to arms, but industrial action on a massive scale.

"When you say ungovernable, we are saying workers must put their tools down," said Malema. "Stopping of production will mean that. We are not calling for violence. The plan is to conscientise our people about the growing inequality."

Three weeks after the last gun fell silent at Marikana, there are still questions about when the Lonmin platinum mine will be able to restart production – and whether the company will survive the year. This week saw labour trouble at two gold mines and violence at one of them, as well as promises of further agitation. One Cabinet minister is trying to reassure investors in London that all is stable in the mining sector, whereas another is condemning "statements that incite violence and causes unwarranted instability".

Militant unions
Officially, and barring Lonmin, the mines are not worried that their production could be affected by newly militant unions making rash promises to members or Malema's call to make the mines ungovernable. But behind the scenes their security and intelligence operations are growing increasingly concerned about the potential for violence.

"We don't have any of the elements that you saw at Marikana, but now any spark can catch fire," said one security head. "If people get angry about anything, it could escalate."

Driving those fears among investors, managers and security staff alike is Malema, who has visited three mines in the past few days in his campaign to radicalise miners.

Some find his reassurances of no violence unconvincing. One mining chief executive this week said off the record that his company considered Malema a serious external threat, but could not afford the political exposure of any attempt to stop him from spreading his message. Trade union Solidarity has no such qualms, however.

"We have workers in mining who are directly affected by these things, who are directly threatened," said Solidarity's Johan Kruger, shortly after helping to lay a criminal complaint of incitement to public violence and intimation against Malema on Wednesday.

Among those who would be happy to see Malema silenced, or at least reined in, will be Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane and the interministerial committee on Marikana, which this week strongly condemned provocative statements and populist rhetoric with only a superficial attempt to avoid direct references to Malema. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)  has also continued to criticise the Malema approach strongly.

But the fact that such powerful groups condemn, whereas only a minor player like Solidarity attempts any action, will not be lost on those who control the money.

"Actions speak louder than words," said Peter Major, who heads the mining division at Cadiz Corporate Solutions and started his mining career in the United States.

Government fractured
"They [investors] are seeing that anyone can say anything and there are no consequences … They're seeing the government fractured, the unions not disciplining members, the ANC taking the side of the workers and they're saying: 'Who is protecting my rights? If they're not protecting my rights now, will they be doing it a month or in a year?' So their money goes elsewhere."

That new-found lack of confidence in the government is almost identical to sentiments on the possibility of mine nationalisation: constant official denials that there is a threat are simply not believed by those whose money would be at risk.

As a result, foreign money, although not avoiding South Africa entirely, will now even more likely seek out investments that offer an immediate return: existing mines with reserves that are relatively cheap to extract. Or, to put it another way, the exact opposite of the long-term, massive greenfields investments that would be required to ­create significant numbers of new jobs.

This comes on the back of what shows every sign of being lean years ahead, especially in precious-metals mining and particularly in terms of saving jobs.

Platinum was a poor business to be in before 1997, according to a recent analysis by David Holland and Brian Kantor, but it "became one of the most profitable businesses in the world" between 2006 and 2008. Then came the recession of 2009 and profitability plummeted below a level at which capital investment could be justified. And there is little hope for the immediate future.

"There is no hint of a return to superior profitability in the share prices of platinum miners," wrote Kantor and Holland. "It looks highly unlikely that platinum miners will be able to satisfy the wants of their stakeholders. All parties should focus on what is realistically possible and economically feasible."

Much the same holds true for gold mining, which is in dire need of what SBG Securities's David Dennis has for some time referred to, a little euphemistically, as a "restructuring".

"There are things that can be fixed – technological innovation so you can mine below 4 000m and ways to improve the lifespan of mines," Dennis said this week. "But unless you start mining a different reef, you aren't going to see any change in the decline in [gold] production. That decline is embedded in the system, unless economic conditions change dramatically and, certainly, labour unrest will not help … I don't think the government is fully aware of the impact the decline is going to have on labour."

There is little hope that the world economy will suddenly recover, or that the price of platinum will shoot through the roof. However, there are tantalising hints that Marikana may, indeed, have been a unique event rather than a harbinger of things to come.

When national leaders of the NUM intervened in the wildcat strike at a Gold Fields mine this week, 95% of workers reported for their shift just hours later – on Wednesday night – and attendance on Thursday morning was 92%, at an operation where a 7% rate of absenteeism is considered normal.

At Gold One's East Modder shaft, workers – some of them rehired after applying for jobs they were fired from for an earlier unprotected strike – braved an angry and sometimes violent crowd to make their way to work and operations went ahead.

Dependable partner
The NUM, a union that some mine owners and investors describe as a dependable partner, if a mean negotiator when it comes to wages, clearly still has power. And at least some miners are clearly determined to keep their jobs – jobs that have become safer and better paying throughout the industry in recent years, with above-inflation increases the norm, regardless of metal prices or exchange rates.

But many mine workers are unhappy with their pay and political operators other than Malema are unhappy with the structure of the industry. Irvin Jim, general secretary of Cosatu's powerful metal and engineering union, Numsa, said despite the government's well-intentioned reforms of mining and mining rights, miners were the most exploited workers, earned very little and still lived in squalor, whereas the mining bosses were reaping billions of dollars from the country's minerals.

"Numsa is convinced that unless the mineral wealth of our country is returned to the people as a whole, mining will continue to be characterised by violence against the working class – either through dangerous working conditions, or from the bullets of the police in defence of the profits of the mining bosses," said Jim this week.

He does not hold with the industry pleading poverty. The combined operating profits of Lonmin, Implats and Anglo Platinum over the past five years could have built millions of RDP houses, he said. "The mining bosses are not fit to control the mineral wealth of our country."

The government has also expressed unhappiness over transformation in the industry and Mining Minister Susan Shabangu has lambasted it for the slow delivery of better housing. A study by her department also showed  that black ownership of mines was below a tenth, far less than the 26% that was meant to be in black hands by 2014 under the mining charter.

But the Chamber of Mines has defended the mining companies. Bheki Sibiya, chief executive of the Chamber of Mines, said black ownership by its members had, on average, already surpassed the 26% target and the reality was closer to 28%.

"We cannot play with the future of the country by using and quoting stale statistics. The report which [the department of mineral resources] is using has no standing in my view," Sibiya said in an interview.

Rousing speeches
If the NUM can maintain its control on most mines and count on the historic loyalty of its members, it will be a counterforce to a worker rebellion, those in politics and business agree.

Similarly, if workers realise that their jobs are under threat, both by economic conditions and the large number of unemployed willing to replace them, rousing speeches alone will not get them to down tools.

Not that the underlying anger will go away.

"The fact is that the mining industry has a hundred years of baggage that it has never paid for," a mining industry executive said this week.

"It originated with the migrant labour system and it was built on cheap black labour. The industry and the entire country will still have to face up to that, or we'll always have trouble."

Malema extracts maximum political mileage

Julius Malema’s mining ­revolution arrives either in his pitch-black Mercedes Vito or a snow-white Range Rover.

When the expelled ANC Youth League leader emerges from one of these vehicles, donning his now trademark black beret, he plays to his audience, many hanging on to his every word.

“The democratic government has turned on its people,” Malema told the people gathered at the memorial for the slain Marikana miners a week after the tragic shooting.

He received rapturous applause before the memorial eventually degenerated into a political rally where Malema decried the government’s role in the incident.

“Our leaders have lost their way and have been co-opted by mine owners and fed profits. They don’t care about you,” Malema told workers at Grootvlei mine in the East Rand exactly a week later.

His chant of “phansi, Zuma, phansi [down with Zuma],” were met with enthusiastic replies from the workers, who relayed to him their anger with the government and the ruling ANC. Goldfields’s Kloof mine in Westonaria was Malema’s next point of call.

He waded into an industrial dispute at the mine, in which workers accused the NUM of representing them without their authority. They disputed the signing of a R69 funeral policy, claiming it was undertaken without their consent. Malema used the occasion to call for workers to take over the mining sector and claim what was rightfully theirs.

Malema’s points of involvement seem well chosen.

Although Marikana was like manna from heaven for a man who was slowly but surely sliding out of the political picture, Grootvlei and Goldfields were shrewd choices.

The debacle surrounding Grootvlei is well documented.

Workers were left unpaid shortly after the mine was taken over by Aurora Empowerment Systems, a company partly owned by President Jacob Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, and Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Zondwa Mandela.

Goldfields gave Malema the opportunity to pronounce on tripartite-alliance politics.

Not only did he label local representatives of the NUM as sell-outs for proceeding on a matter without authority from the workers, he also claimed Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi was under attack by “counter-revolutionaries” within the alliance.

Malema may claim to be fighting for the rights of workers and swears that he is defending the defenceless, but all signs indicate a politician attempting to stay relevant – and workers tend to agree at times.

“I am not for Malema, but I know when he talks, you guys [the media] come,” Sabelo Fafetine said during Malema’s visit to Goldfields.

“That’s the only way people listen to us – if the media is here.”

At Garankuwa Magistrate’s Court on September 3, Elijah Mogale (21) looked five years younger after his brother Thomas, one of the striking Marikana miners, was released from police custody following the National Prosecuting Authority’s dropping of murder charges against the 267 miners arrested following August 16’s massacre.

“They would not be free now if it wasn’t for Julius Malema and his lawyers,” said Mogale, beaming. “My family still wouldn’t know whether my brother was dead or alive or where he was.”

Behind him, the first batch of miners was singing and toyi-toying in front of a fleet of minibus taxis that the Friends of the Youth League had laid on to transport the miners back to Marikana.

Hours earlier, Mogale had waited in the court with no knowledge of his brother’s welfare since the massacre a week and a half ago: “We didn’t know if he was dead, missing or arrested.”

According to Mogale, who is unemployed, part of his brother’s salary was sent home to Polokwane every month to subsidise his family’s day-to-day existence.

Malema and his Friends of the Youth League supporters have undoubtedly stepped into – and are capitalising from – the vacuum created by an inert government and mainstream progressive political parties such as the ANC and South African Communist Party.

Yet they remain far from having captured the imaginations of all the striking miners in Marikana. In a sea of silence from politicians, there is appreciation for his recognition of their struggle, but for every striking miner who feels Malema has helped them, there is one who believes his presence is detracting from their struggle.

“Malema is here because December is around the corner; he is here because of Mangaung,” said one miner, who preferred to remain anonymous.  

On the march to Lonmin’s number three shaft on September 5, several miners confirmed to the M&G that the Friends of the Youth League had been working hard at lobbying communities and ANC members in the area in an anti-Zuma drive.

The Marikana massacre gives Malema the opportunity to regain a foothold in politics. But it will also prove another watershed in his political career: whether he can mobilise from the ground up to build organic support, or whether his impulses will continue to be wedded to the narrow ones of self interest and power within the ruling party.

At this stage, perhaps the best indicator about this coalescence of strikers and Malema is a response by a Friends of the Youth League member outside the Garankuwa Magistrate’s Court to the question of whether the strikers would achieve the outcomes they wished for. “That will depend on Mangaung,” said the organiser. – Nickolaus Bauer & Niren Tolsi

Charles Molele
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