A political solution without manipulation is a key element for calm in South Africa’s Lonmin debacle

Posted: August 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

A dark cloud covered South Africa last week when police opened fire and killed 34 miners, shocking the nation that is seen as the new hope for African regeneration. The whole world watched with horror as the media broadcast images of dead miners lying on the ground after police fired with live ammunition on striking workers. This was a tragic incident but the focus now is on how to restore calm to the troubled mining community. I believe this problem can only be solved by finding a way to satisfy at least in part the short term demands of striking miners while at the same time putting in place mechanisms to avoid similar events in future. The situation at Marikana is a real test for both the country’s leadership and its unions as they are now all responsible for making sure that people return to their normal lives with both better packages and better prospects for future relations between them and the mine management. As Jay Naidoo points out in his article “Marikana: Blood on our hands, hands over ears”published in the Mail & Guardian on 22 August “This is the real trial of leadership on all sides. It is a tinderbox. We do not need demagoguery that stirs explosive

“…Pointing fingers and driving back to a flashy R16m house in Sandton”

emotions or to engage in finger-pointing that adds fuel to the fire”. I am with Jay in believing we should avoid giving attention to people who seek to manipulate the situation to their political ends at the expense of dead miners. One example that comes to mind is the way former ANC youth leader Julius Malema and his friends have handled this matter. While the state president has rightly called for an inquiry into this matter, Malema has called for extended protests and the resignation of the President, even suggesting in international media that South Africa does not have a president, whatever that means. While it may be his personal right to express himself, it is reckless for him to point fingers. By doing so, I believe he undermines the prospects for the workers to negotiate a better deal. Moreover Malema has in the past attacked international media saying they are serving imperial masters but today he fights for space to be seen in the whole world using the same media. Apart from his polemic attacks on the state and business, it is difficult to see how he proposes finding a lasting solution for the suffering miners.

Early warning systems and reactions

One of the reasons why the situation has deteriorated to this point is the state’s inability to respond to early warning signs that living conditions for workers were deteriorating and grievances increasing. Inequality is perceived to be on the rise as people in townships across the country express bitterness that democracy has not delivered their expectations in terms of service delivery and quality of life, while a few elite are clearly and ostentatiously enjoying benefits of the status quo. The media across the world has been showing us how workers around the platinum mines live in informal squatter camps, surrounded by acute poverty and without basic services. This is despite the fact platinum is one of the most expensive minerals that brings substantial wealth that, if distributed well, could help ease poverty in the mining sector. Also, one of the underlying factors is the failure of many companies who mine in communities to assist workers with basic things such as clean water, adequate housing and electricity, as well as work-related issues such as lack of vocational training, poor health and safety precautions (leading to accidents) and limited opportunities for promotion. Everyone understands that there is a recession but the poor living conditions in the mining communities have been going on for many years with little attention from the big companies such as Lonmin. It was also inappropriate for Lonmin to warn workers against the continued strike and threaten firings, especially at a time when they are mourning their fallen collegues.

All these factors, I believe, will be reflected in President’s Zuma’s enquiry and I sincerely hope that its findings will help initiate solutions, particularly in the long term. In the face of Malema’s calls for Zuma’s resignation, one wonders what else the President could have done. One of the critical elements that may emerge from an inquiry is the need for the trade unions to put their houses in order – several media reports indicate that rival unions at the centre of the situation may have exacerbated the violence. Also, it is simplistic to blame the police alone for their reaction. While I totally agree that other means could have been employed by police to deal with the striking miners, it is also the duty of unions to make sure that striking workers don’t pose a threat to the lives of police who are doing their jobs for society. The fact that two police officers were hacked to death by miners before the shooting has been under-reported and may well have contributed to the panicked way police reacted. Scenes of workers carrying machetes and pangas remind people of the apartheid times and this does not look good for the country and its future business dealings with the outside world.

I also think it will be wise for workers to own their struggles and avoid political meddling as this might not ultimately get them a better deal. We saw this in Zimbabwe when the land issue got hijacked by politicians. The land issue was a problem for ordinary Zimbabweans but politicians intervened and provided solutions that today still fail to achieve the goals of more equitable land redistribution and instead generated unemployment for tens of thousands of black farm workers. Through their unions, workers must seek ownership of their struggles and find better ways. They must also use have faith in due procedure and the judiciary – perhaps with the help of strong media and public scrutiny – to ensure that those guilty of misconduct on the side of the police will face justice in court.

As a former mine worker myself, I sympathise strongly with workers who are suffering greatly, but I also recognise that they need business for survival as much as it needs them. I can only hope that a solution will be found that allows everyone to move forward together.

  1. Rejoice Ngwenya says:

    “One of the critical elements that may emerge from an inquiry is the need for the trade unions to put their houses in order – several media reports indicate that rival unions at the centre of the situation may have exacerbated the violence.” in this case, if COSATU is a key ANC ally, would it be possible that NUM and its protagonists were infiltrated by [armed] entities that want to discredit ZUMA? Point 2: when people demonstrate, is it not ‘sensible’ to use plackards and toyi toyi rather than ‘traditional’ weapons and fire arms? Intriguing!

  2. Tamsanqa says:

    this a sober and insightful article; it puts the likes of Malema to shame. And yes, I agree with Rejoice’s comment too; I hope the inquiry will be independent enough to do it’s job without fear or favour.

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