The Institute for Security Studies is a regional human security policy think tank with an exclusive focus on Africa. As a leading African human security research institution, the institute is guided by a broad approach to security reflective of the changing nature and origin of threats to human development.
Could the situation at the Lonmin mine in the Marikana area of South Africa’s North West province have been handled differently to avoid the tragic loss of lives? From the conflicting accounts emanating from different quarters it is difficult to reach a conclusive response. The events that culminated in the death of 34 protesting mineworkers on 16 August, when officers of the South African Police Service (SAPS) shot at workers using live ammunition, were initially sparked by a rock drillers strike on 10 August. The rock drillers were demanding a more than 300% salary increase, from R4 000 to R12 500 per month.
The shooting incident resulted in one of the worst death tolls in violent protests since 1994. A total of 44 people have lost their lives, including 10 other individuals killed in attacks shortly before the deadly incident. In addition to the deaths, 78 people were injured and the police arrested 259 individuals. The only other post-1994 public protest recording a higher death rate was the 2006 security guard strike that resulted in 50 deaths over a three-month period. While President Jacob Zuma has declared a seven-day official mourning period, which should offer all a moment of reflection, the Lonmin management, in what has been described by some as crass insensitivity, issued the striking mineworkers with an ultimatum to return to work immediately or face dismissal. At the time of writing, the miners are mostly refusing to return, saying that it would be an insult to their colleagues killed during the police crackdown. At the present moment the situation at Marikana is one of uneasy calm.
The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has traditionally organised in the mining sector, has been locked in a blame game with the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Each union blames the other for instigating the violence that led to the deadly confrontation with the SAPS. There are suggestions that the NUM has been losing its influence in some areas such as the platinum mines in the North West. This, it is argued, is as a result of infighting within the NUM, which led to workers in the platinum sector withdrawing their allegiance from the union. One recent controversy has been the alleged political interference in the 2010 NUM elective conference that saw Frans Baleni, a supporter of Zuma, running unopposed for the position of secretary general. His opponent in the 2010 elections was Archie Phalane, who had been nominated by a majority of platinum workers. Phalane was told at the last minute that he could not run for secretary general of NUM because he was an employee of the union. This created tension and feelings of disgruntlement among many of the platinum mine workers who supported him.
Since then, the NUM’s representation among platinum mineworkers has dropped significantly and it is seen by many in the sector as a ‘sweetheart union’ unable to represent their interests. Just how bad things had become for the NUM in this sector became apparent when on 15 August its current national president, Senzeni Zokana, refused to leave a police armoured vehicle to address the striking workers, fearing for his life. It is reported that AMCU national president Joseph Mathunjwa received a rousing welcome and addressed workers. Mathunjwa had started AMCU after being expelled from the NUM by former union secretary general and current ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe. This resulted in 3 000 people leaving the NUM to join AMCU, which was registered in 2001. However, in this instance, even the AMCU failed to convince workers, some of whom were armed with newly made traditional weapons such as spears and pangas, to stand down from the hilltop where they had gathered. So while the AMCU has been able to move into the space originally occupied by the NUM, it seems it is not yet the dominant union and therefore a labour leadership vacuum exists in the platinum sector.
However, various questions remain as to why the confrontation between the striking mine workers and the police led to such a high death toll. What led to the miners being so angry and heavily armed in the first place? The answer might lie in the overall absence of leadership among the relevant role-players. There is evidence that the socio-economic conditions of these mineworkers have been deteriorating over the past five years. Increasingly, the mineworkers and their families living in the surrounding informal settlements have realised that those in power are not interested in their plight. It was at this moment that they decided to take matters into their own hands.
Following the earlier spurt of violence in which six miners, two Lonmin security guards and two police officers were hacked to death, concerted action by the SAPS, together with mine management and rival union leaders, would have been expected. For instance, representatives nominated from the ranks of the striking workers, traditional leaders in the area, the SAPS and union representatives, together with mine management, could have come together to discuss the concerns of the 3 000 striking workers to prevent further bloodshed. At the very least, the departments of Labour or Mineral Resources should have actively sought to assist with negotiations. The fact that none of this occurred is an illustration of the leadership crisis that South Africa faces.
The effectiveness of South Africa’s domestic intelligence services in gathering credible information is also questionable given this tragedy. The police were clearly concerned that there was a likely chance of violence, which is why they deployed members of two highly trained police units, namely the National Intervention Unit and the Special Task Force. Both these units only become involved in situations that most other policing units cannot handle. However, in the end these specialist units acted reactively, leading to large-scale deaths that may not have happened if they had adequate intelligence as to the identity of the leaders, or the mood and plans of the striking miners. It is a matter of concern that, despite the failures of intelligence exposed by the widespread xenophobic violence in 2008 and the ongoing violence associated with many labour strikes in South Africa, our intelligence agencies are still unable to play a proactive role to prevent deaths and violence. The politicisation of these structures has clearly taken a heavy toll.
These developments may also have major political implications for South Africa. The tri-partite alliance, consisting of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP), is a very powerful entity. However, questions need to be asked about the extent to which it adequately represents the truly poor and vulnerable in South Africa. Some have argued that COSATU and the SACP have largely come to represent a ‘working class aristocracy’ and are too involved in ANC elite power politics to adequately work in the interest of the poor. As a result violent public protests over poor service delivery have been increasing substantially over the past three years.
The Marikana tragedy has pitted an exploited labour force against a cosy elite consisting of private capital and the politically powerful. It is for this reason that populists such as expelled former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema can so easily step into the breach as he did when addressing the strikers over the weekend. His support group, ‘Friends of the Youth League’, is reportedly paying for the legal costs of the 259 arrested miners while ANC leaders have yet to visit the striking workers. This lends support to the perception that those pushing for radical populist policies such as mine nationalisation and land expropriation without compensation are acting in the interests of the poor.
The Marikana deaths have exposed various fault lines in South Africa, with inadequate leadership at the core. The challenges faced by the police, the government and the alliance are arguably the result of a depletion of capable leadership in important structures. These structures, when led by capable, experienced men and women of integrity, should ideally protect and advance citizens’ interests. This, however, is impossible in a system based on patronage rather than merit.
Written by Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo, Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria