Denis Worrall is Chairman and founder of Omega Investment Research, an international marketing and investment promotion business with offices in Cape Town and London, established more than twenty years ago. To see how Omega can help your business visit www.omegainvest.co.za
There is an opinion abroad that as a consequence of apartheid and state excesses under apartheid South Africans have become immured to the sort of tragic crisis which occurred over the past week with the killings at the Lonmin mine of some 40 people – most of them mine-workers but also some policemen. That view is not correct: South Africans of all groups were shocked by the event. The initial response may have been to blame the police – as is often the case. The police responded by saying that they acted in self-defence. Given the circumstances, I suspect that both points of view have some merit. But the issues go way beyond just the police and what was an illegal mining strike. In fact, the events of the last few weeks demonstrated a huge malfunctioning of our society and the failure of authorities at different levels to act as their duty and responsibilities required them to.
President Jacob Zuma, while obviously expressing his, the governments’ and South African people’s dismay at the killings, did the right thing in announcing the appointment of a Commission of Enquiry to, as he put it, “Get to the bottom of this matter”. At the time of writing, that Commission has not been appointed but I’m sure it will be a strong and objective Commission. It will also have the benefit of numerous independent eye-witness accounts of the tragedy and on the events leading up to it because the media – both print and electronic - has been well-represented throughout.
Why do I say that this tragedy can be traced back to a massive failure of authorities with responsibility in the situation to manage it?
• Firstly, this was not some sudden event which caught everybody by surprise. Still fresh in the minds of most of those in authority and in particular the mine management would have been the 17-week Implats’ strike which ended a matter of weeks ago. It happened in the same area and for the same reason. The strike at Lonmin’s Marikana mine near Rustenburg began as an illegal strike. The reasons were quite specific, namely wages. The workers on the Lonmin mine were receiving R4, 000 a month, whereas similar workers doing exactly the same kind of work at Implats in the same area were earning R9, 500. Moreover, adding complexity to this situation was a tribal element. The rock drillers all over South Africa have traditionally always been from Lesotho, whereas the miners at Implats are Xhosa-speaking and from the Cape.
• Obviously, in the first rank and potentially very influential players in this situation were the unions. Yet the unions were completely divided in their role and, if anything, contributed to the crisis. Andrew Levy, the highly-respected labour analyst, says: “Politicising labour unions was a major factor leading to the massacre of striking mine-workers at the Lonmin platinum mine last week.” He points out that violence during strikes has been on the rise since 2005, citing the public service and security worker’s strikes of 2010 and the metal and engineering strike last year. He goes on: “Rivalry between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is what led to the tragic strike.” NUM, a COSATU affiliate, stood on one side as AMCU, a relatively new union, represented – insofar as they wanted to be represented – the striking workers on the hilltop. ANC factionalism added spice to the union situation. AMCU, incidentally, evolved out of a NUM leadership tussle between Frans Balesi and Archie Phalane, with suggestions that Phalane and his coterie sympathised with former President Thabo Mbeki and Balesi with President Zuma.
• The Department of Mineral Resources and its minister Susan Shabangu have been criticised for a lack of visibility. Indeed, a spokesperson for the ministry is reported to have said that the violence at Lonmin was a criminal matter and the minister was liaising with the Police minister about how to end the unrest. By contrast, the Chamber of Mines tried very hard to intervene positively – but obviously unsuccessfully.
• While the police say that they used all the conventional methods to break up the group of miners coming down the hill – barbed wire, water cannons, etc. – questions can be asked about the nature of the ammunition and automatic weapons which they used. Lending credence to the police view that they fired in self-defence is the way the shot miners lay, suggesting that it was an almost hand-to-hand situation, and therefore the police were acting in self-defence. There is no question that the miners were armed with all kinds of lethal weapons, including guns. In fact, among the weapons collected after the shooting was the revolver of a policeman who had been shot earlier in the week.
So that is why I say that this was a failure on the part of all those who had a role and responsibility but didn’t exercise it. The unions, mine management, the police for possible excessive force, the Minister and her ministry, and in the end the Cabinet.
But attributing blame in a tragedy like this cannot be an end in itself. President Zuma’s statement about “getting to the bottom of the matter” is right – because only in this way can something like this be prevented from happening again.