South Africa: 'Sorting fact from fiction at Marikana' -- Terry Bell on the massacre of mineworkers

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August 27, 2012 -- Terry Bell is a widely respected labour reporter and activist based in Cape Town, South Africa. His "Inside  labour" columns in Amandla! magazine and on his blog, Terry Bell Writes, are essential reading for those interested in developments in South Africa's labour movement. Below, with Terry Bell's permission, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal posts some of his recent columns dealing with Marikana massacre and the background to it.

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By Terry Bell

August 23, 2012 -- Terry Bell Writes --  The deaths at Lonmin amount to the bloodiest tragedy of the post-apartheid era. As a result, the blame game is in full swing and is likely to continue in the weeks ahead.

But all the finger pointing, accusations and counter accusations only highlight the plethora of questions that desperately need to be thoroughly interrogated. Any resulting answers also need then to be acted upon in a comprehensive way. As matters now stand, there seems to be a dangerous tendency not to confront the issue holistically.

The possibly inappropriate over-reaction by a heavy armed police force that resulted in so many deaths and injuries is an obvious focus for those demanding accountability. Questions should certainly be asked as to why the two police helicopters did not drop teargas if there was a danger of armed conflict;  why  barbed wire entanglements were not set up and why live ammunition was issued and who gave the order to shoot.

But the causes of this tragedy extend well beyond police training and who gave the orders and planned — or failed to plan — the police action. They also extend beyond the rivalry between, primarily, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and even the attitude and approach of management.

Above all the whole, horrific business should not be seen in isolation from the almost daily and often violent protests around the country. All appear to stem from the same fundamental cause, the welling up of community and workplace anger.

There are, of course, special circumstances related to mining. But, on a general level, what lies at the root of all these upheavals is the so-called “gatvol factor”, the anger of people whose lives remain mired in desperate poverty.

That criminal elements and individuals with various political agendas should take advantage of such situations is scarcely surprising. But this in no way alters the fact that the underlying cause is the social and economic conditions in which so many people find themselves trapped.

This has been illustrated in numerous studies, the most recent of which was the Bench Marks Foundation report released just two days before the massacre at the Lonmin Makana shaft. All the conditions were in place to indicate that what happened on August 16 was a bloodbath waiting to happen.

In the absence of adequate communication and leadership from management, unions and government, peppered by arrogance, ignorance and complacency, violence was always in  prospect. That it escalated in the way that it did really provides only detail to the circumstances that have ensured a new legacy of bitterness and hatred.

The simple truth is that many mineworkers are now worse off than ever they were in the past. In the apartheid era, there was no legal requirement for the mining companies to stack men, on concrete shelves three-deep around the walls of stark, utilitarian hostels. This was done in the name of profit.

This form of accommodation is no longer generally acceptable although it still exists. Families may now join their male breadwinners. But rather than provide accommodation suitable for families, the companies have turned increasingly to outsourced labour.

What this has meant is that labour brokers compete, constantly cutting prices, to win contracts on the mines. In what the unions have dubbed a mad race to the bottom, it is hungry workers and their families that pay the price.

Such conditions, along with a perceived “too cosy” relationship between the long-established NUM leadership and mine managements, provided the opportunity for the emergence of newer unions. One such wasthe AMCU , established more than a decade ago in the coalfields of Mpumalanga.

AMCU was founded by disgruntled members of the NUM and, once established, affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU), that has its roots in the Black Consciousness Movement. In the 1994 transition period, NACTU flirted briefly with the idea of affiliation to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) before deciding to remain politically independent.

AMCU has now emerged in the platinum sector posing as the defender of worker interests and promising to fight for a living wage, better pay and equal rights for all.  It found a ready audience throughout the sector where there is growing anger at job losses and outsourced labour.

Lonmin, for example, employs up to 27,000 workers, 10,000 of whom are “outsourced”. These outsourced miners do the same work at often much less than the minimum wage and without the benefits of housing, health care and rations.

These are the men who, with their families, live in the sprawl of squatter camps that now surround the various mines. Here, amid squalor and hopelessness, anger and resentment fester. This is the source and, unless it is addressed, more tragedy is likely to follow.

Sorting fact from fiction at Marikana

By Terry Bell

August 23, 2012 --  Terry Bell Writes -- “Money, historic distrust, poor communication by and between different parties and the intervention of a small criminal element provided the volatile mix that exploded into violence ... [management] claimed that the incidents were sparked by rivalry between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and relative newcomer, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu)."

Much as it may seem to fit, the statement above was not about Lonmin in August 2012. It appeared in this column on February 19 this year and referred to the situation at Impala Platnum (Implats), where there had been an illegal strike, rioting and deaths.

Both the NUM and AMCU rejected management’s claim and laid the blame squarely on the mine management’s decision to award a differential bonus to some workers. Amid vague and sometimes misleading media reports, NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka admitted that AMCU’s claimed minority of 1000 members (out of a workforce of 25,000) could not have been responsible for the upheaval; whatever the rivalry between the two, AMCU was clearly recognised a legitimate trade union.

It was accepted that AMCU was founded at the Douglas colliery in Mpumalanga in 1998 by disgruntled former members of of NUM. The union was also legally recognised in 2001 by the government's labour department and is now an affiliate of the National Council of Trade Unions.

This seems to have been ignored over the past 10 days. Allegations emerged from from NUM that AMCU had appeared almost overnight as a proxy for the Chamber of Mines; South African Communist Party (SACP) general secretary and higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, also claimed that AMCU was a “pseudo trade union funded by [mining giant] BHP-Billiton”.

Such inflammatory propaganda, as well as the opportunistic intervention by expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, and the narrow, finger-pointing focus of others, ranging from politicians and government ministers to mine management and some campaigning groups, has added to the tension. That some of these individuals and groups portray themselves as providing the best way forward, has echoes of a statement attributed to the famous British economist, John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes is reputed to have said that there exists “the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds”. Which is not to say that those who have pointed their fingers and paraded their promises and assessments are necessarily nasty. They may be — but, in many cases, their motives are certainly questionable.

In the name of reason and without prejudging responsibility for, and detail about, events, obvious facts need to be made clear. One of these is the origin of AMCU and its earlier acceptance by other unions, including NUM. Another is that the “mountain” where strikers gathered, is a some distance from mine property and on what is generally regarded as common land.

The complex issue of differential wages should also not be used to obscure the fact that many miners live in the most appalling conditions and that a very large percentage of the workforce throughout the mining sector now comprises contract labour supplied by brokers. It is also a fact — which Malema used in an inflammatory manner — that many miners are aware of, and angry about, Cyil Ramaphosa, the first general secretary of NUM. Not only because he is now a millionaire businessman, but because he is also a director of Lonmin.

Other, similar, facts that add to the anger — and will almost certainly be exploited — are that a former NUM president, James Matlatsi, became chair of AngloGold and that a one-time deputy general secretary of the union, Marcel Golding, became a billionaire businessman via the union-backed Hoskin Consolidated Investments.

Particularly galling for some members is the fact that NUM general secretary Frans Baleni justified as “market related” his acceptance of a R40,000 a month — 108 per cent — pay rise earlier this year to take his pay to R77,000 a month.

However, at worker level at Lonmin and throughout the mining sector, arguments about differential wages and wage levels tend to cloud the real issue of the living conditions and dire poverty that are the lot of thousands of miners. This is part of the legacy bequeathed by a bloody history in South Africa of often callous exploitation that created fabulous fortunes for the few.

Those few massive beneficiaries may not all have been nasty people, but the system demanded — and continues to demand — that profit be maximised. The human cost of this, especially in an unfettered and loosely regulated environment that so many in business are again calling for, can be devastating.

Just how devastating came solidly to the fore with the lodging in the South Gauteng high court of the first stage of what may be a multibillion rand class action against mining companies. Nine former mineworkers representing tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of men whose lungs are terminally scarred have demanded the right to sue their former employers.

From the mountains of Lesotho and the lowlands of Transkei, to Swaziland and as far afield as Malawi and Zambia, there are the graves of thousands of men who died slow, painful and premature deaths from silicosis and tuberculosis caused by breathing the fine dust in the stopes and tunnels of South Africa’s mines.

In the same villages where these graves lie, there are men of succeeding generations, many frail and looking aged beyond their years. Their rasping breath and slow movements mark them out as the walking dead from the mines.

This is the largely hidden, unquantified cost of extracting mineral wealth from deep below the soils of South Africa. It is an horrific and frightening reality that — like deadly rock bursts and maiming accidents — miners live with on a daily basis.

All of this must be borne in mind by a comprehensive and transparent inquiry that will hopefully establish what was, what is and, above all, what needs to be done.

No angels in bloody mine clashes

By Terry Bell

August 15, 2012 -- Terry Bell Writes [written just prior to the August 16 police massacre of at least 34 Marikana mineworkers] -- The ongoing tension and violence at South Africa’s Lonmin platinum mine is a much more complex and messy business than a simple turf war between unions in the Rustenburg region of the country. With various agendas in play, there is now a growing call from both trade unionists and mine officials for a throroughgoing commission of inquiry into the bloody clashes that have resulted in at least 10 deaths over the past week alone.

Some of the present bitterness can be traced to a decision by the Imapala Platinum (Implats) management earlier this year to “derecognise” the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The union was given three months’ notice that it would cease to be recognised for the purposes of negotiation because its membership had fallen below the 50 per cent plus one mark of the workforce.  This is the “threshold agreement” adhered to by unions and management.

NUM promptly launched an urgent court application to halt this process, claiming that the figures used by Implats were incorrect. NUM also conceded that some members had defected to  the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), but said they had done so because of violence and intimidation. AMCU denied the charge and claimed to have gained a majority of union members, certainly at one Implats shaft.

This led to accusations from NUM that the mining house was embarking on a process to rid the mines of union recognition and were using AMCU to do so. However, accusations by NUM that AMCU is a recent creation “of the Chamber of Mines” are clearly off the mark. AMCU was formed more than a decade ago in the Mpumalanga coalfields by disgruntled NUM members. It is affiliated to the smaller National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) federation.

Perhaps ironically, a “verification exercise” to establish union membership levels at Implats — agreed at tripartite talks between unions and management — is scheduled to start on Monday.  However, AMCU has apparently now withdrawn from the exercise.  Lonmin is not involved and continues to recognise NUM.

The clashes at Lonmin seem to have started following the awarding by management of a R700 bonus to one section of the workforce. Others demanded that their income also be topped up — and a wildcat strike erupted.

AMCU, keen to make headway against the long entrenched NUM, appears to have given a degree of support to the protesting miners, signing many of them up in the process. Who first attacked whom, who fired th first shots and in what circumstances is still unclear. But at least 10 people ae dead.

At this stage, all that seems clear is that there are no angels in this; no clear good guys and bad guys. As a result, there is a growing realisation that, for the good of the industry and the labour movement, the details of this literally bloody business must be comprehensively exposed.