Can’t You Hear The Thunder?


The headlines scream 'Marikana Massacre'; 'Killing Fields of Rustenburg'. Radio and TV Talk shows and social media all display the anger and expose the psyche of a nation badly wounded. The bloodiest security operation since the end of apartheid has left us shocked and asking what went wrong? The reality is, many things went wrong. Way too many things went wrong, for way too long now. 

When I think of Marikana, I am reminded of Frantz Fanon in Wretched of the Earth: “Come, then, comrades; it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind. The new day which is already at hand must find us firm, prudent and resolute.”

As a union organiser in the ’80s, I knew that taking workers out on strike on a legitimate wage demand is not an uphill battle. Taking workers back to work after a failed strike is the ultimate test for any union leader. Now is the time for calm heads to prevail.

The Judicial Commission of Enquiry appointed by President Zuma will hopefully present all the facts. It is the right decision. But it will take painstaking commitment on all sides to rebuild the trust that has been shattered. And that involves us all as citizens. There is not going to be a simple solution. This is a complex dispute that is at its very essence a microcosm of South African society.

Today a community struggles to recover from a bloody confrontation that has left the crumpled bodies of 44 citizens lying in the veld, seen starkly in our lounges and across the world. It has split brother from brother and left a community divided and volatile. This is the real trial of leadership on all sides. It is a tinderbox. We do not need demagoguery that stirs explosive emotions or to engage in finger-pointing that adds fuel to the fire. 

The critical question is how could this have happened in 2012, 18 years into our democracy and the centenary commemoration of the ANC’s struggle for social justice and human dignity? 

The answer simply is that there has been a massive failure of leadership on all sides. The critical question is why we did not act earlier on this festering dispute that today the nation mourns?

There is growing ferment in our land. The people in our townships, rural areas and squatter camps are bitter that democracy has not delivered the fruits that they see a tiny elite enjoying. Our leaders across the spectrum are not talking to our people, they are not working with them systematically to solve their problems, in providing the hope that one day, even in their children’s lives, things will be better.

All they see is the obscenity of shocking wealth and the chasm of inequality growing. The platinum mines they toil in, for a pittance, yield a precious metal that makes exorbitant jewellery that adorns the necks of the affluent and catalytic converters for the expensive cars the middle classes drive. The workers live in hovels, in informal squatter camps, surrounded by poverty and without basic services. All they experience is a political arrogance of leaders who more often than not enrich themselves at the expense the people. They are angry and restless.  

A narrow law and order approach will not work in this depressing context. There is genuine anger out there that needs a political solution. I am aghast at the rapid rate at which our government had militarized the security forces and the creeping stranglehold of securocrats within the state. I wonder why our police intelligence failed so miserably to avert a disaster that threatens the country’s economic prospects. Are the securocrats in the state so occupied in searching for imaginary enemies in NGOs and civil society organisations and with passing “Secrecy Laws” that they missed one of biggest crises to face our democracy? There are important choices to be made by the government, but hard questions must first be asked. What are our priorities? What is the root cause of conflict in our society? These may be tough questions, but they are also unavoidable.

Inter-union rivalry is part of the problem. Lonmin management has recognised the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which claims between 20% and 30% of the workforce, for dealing with shop floor issues affecting their membership; but they have fanned the rivalry by only giving recognition to the dominant unions, the National Union of Miners (NUM) and Solidarity, in official wage bargaining structures.

When you recognise a union but exclude it from the collective bargaining negotiations around the core issue of wages, you have a recipe for disaster.  

The leadership of NUM and Cosatu need to address why so many mineworkers chose a different union and why they lost confidence in a Cosatu affiliate.  

I have been in many places where I am personally told: “Comrade, we do not see union organisers. We don’t know what is happening in our union. Our leaders are too involved in politics and we do not get the services and education we did in the past.” 

Have we lost touch with our members? After all, these workers were seasoned unionists who have fought many battles, yet they consciously joined an alternative union. We will need some brutal self-assessment here.

Collective bargaining is the cornerstone of our democracy. I believe it was the prototype of the political negotiations that laid the basis of our democracy. The battles fought by hardened antagonists who faced each other across a negotiating table that recognised the alternative to negotiations was a “scorched earth”. As trade unionists, we knew all the negotiating tactics: strikes, go-slows and lockouts and compromises. When industrial disputes spilled into the streets we united to find solutions and face the heat of angry workers.

Putting this collective bargaining machinery at risk will be a severe blow to our democracy. We cannot afford a free-for-all in such a fragile stage of our democracy.

Rustenburg is not a homogenous community. The growth of the platinum belt created an opportunity to develop the new non-racial towns of the future. Instead, all we see is the mushrooming of informal settlements, racial divisions and the spatial planning of our apartheid past. As job seekers flooded in from all over the country the competition over scarce resources was inevitable. We ignored the festering discontent in the bosom of our economy.

And linked to that, Lonmin, a company with its head in the sand, was woefully oblivious to the conditions its workers lived under. It is a reminder to corporate leaders that social stability must be part of the mainstream business agenda. It cannot be written off as a responsibility of the local government and political leaders. It’s not good enough to tick off the neat box of social corporate responsibility or say “I pay my taxes and this is not my job.” 

Lonmin was more intent in the early stages on accusing workers of an illegal strike. When the massacre left 34 workers dead and 78 injured, its executives vanished, refused to meet the workers and then started issuing ultimatums for workers to return or face disciplinary action. Callous mine management, in their plush boardrooms in luxury London headquarters, are the face of rapacious capitalism. Their only preoccupation is the all-important production target of 750,000 saleable ounces of platinum that will be missed due to the closure of the Marikana mine. It is an attitude that will only stoke the anger in our communities.

And to us, horrified citizens, will we ever know the names of the dead workers and police officers? Who are they, what were their aspirations, how many children and dependents do they leave behind? Have we become so inured to endemic violence that it does not matter anymore? 

They are statistics. Alongside the 15-million South Africans who are only saved from starvation because of social grant. Do we care that almost half our population lives in poverty or that that single mineworker probably supports eight people on a take-home minimum wage? According to Labour Force Survey figures, 60% of all workers earn less than R2,500 a month.  Many of these workers are the sole income earners in their households.

These are statistics those of us living in the cosy bubbles of walled security suburbs like Sandton ignore at our peril. 

The problems at Marikana were further compounded by the fact today many of these workers are sub-contracted. It has all the features of the heinous migrant labour system. Workers families are as invisible as they were in the Bantustan labour reservoirs of the past. 

We had a foretaste of this dispute at Impala Platinum last year. The pay hikes granted to rock drill operators there sparked a similar demand at Lonmin. What did it teach us? There has to be a change of heart and business strategy in the mining sector. 

I have often heard notable analysts complain of the high cost of labour. I don’t know which universe they live in. But how can you justify company executives and directors earn up to 250 times as much a rock driller? (Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Lonmin’s CEO, Ian Farmer was paid R15 million in 2011.)

Just as Marikana is a wake-up call for Cosatu, so it is for business and the ANC. Our democracy needs a strong union movement independent of political parties and business interests. But too much of Cosatu’s time is occupied debating the upcoming ANC leadership contest. The coming Cosatu Congress will be a watershed, where political divisions in the movement may herald the death knell of an independent labour movement that can represent the interests of the poor and marginalised. 

Cosatu need to return to its founding principles of serving its members or Marikana will become the start of a downward spiral.

The Northwest province is ruled by the ANC, which also controls the bulk of the seats in the Rustenburg municipality. The platinum miners are the bedrock of the ANC support. The broken promises and the brazen corruption affect them directly. Criminal tenderpreneurs are flourishing in their midst. Most local authorities are dysfunctional. There is a deep-seated anger growing in the Northwest. There is a deep-seated anger growing in the country. And yet the leaders are not at the coal face. People feel robbed of their voices and powerless. 

In the absence of strong, legitimate political organisation in the communities, they see violence as the only language their leaders will listen to. It’s is a vicious cycle that sees our people burning down any institution representing the state, whether a school, a library or a public building. 

My hope is that the president will take us into his confidence. I know it hurts you deeply that the blood of our fellow citizens has been needlessly spilled. My desire is that the road to Mangaung should be shaped by the lessons of the road from Marikana. Our people, Mr President, are exhausted by the excuses given by our leaders. They want solutions and not more task teams, policy statements and conferences. They want action that improves the day-to-day lives, that delivers water and textbooks to schools, ARVs and medicines to our clinics.

I, like the majority of South Africans, have more questions than answers. But we must engage in a healthy open and frank debate. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.

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