Conditions for miners is sub-human

One of the crucial issues facing SA is the dehumanising poverty levels of the majority of our population.

Last week, as we marked World Poverty Day, the horrendous statistics of people living below the poverty line across the world were revealed. Closer to home, the last few weeks have put the mining sector in the spotlight and pointed to the fact that we, as a nation, must pay more attention to the critical question of economic redress as a precondition for fighting poverty.

MARCHING FOR THEIR RIGHTS: More than 3 000 mineworkers take part in a march at Lonmin's Marikana mine. The writer has called on the government, mining groups and other sectors of South Africa to take urgent steps to address poverty. Credit: REUTERS

The conditions of employment in the mining industry are in all honesty sub-human.

In the wake of the Marikana tragedy, I was moved to write to the president to once again underline the question of urgent action to ensure that the underlying economic questions are addressed once and for all.

US president Franklin D Roosevelt, in his second inaugural address, said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

This is the challenge that has been thrown up by the strikes that have afflicted that industry in particular, placing on the national discourse the morality of exorbitant bonuses for bosses and a pittance for workers who risk their lives every day to dig up the metals that are a source of riches for the few.

My heart is sore, and my spirit is grieving after visiting some of the mining areas, especially in the Northwest area. It felt as if the land was crying out to me, deep in my soul, saying, “All is not well, all is not well.” It felt like the calm before the storm, the eye of the hurricane.

That part of North-West province teeters on a knife edge. The dire state of everything from living conditions to the issues in the mining community, stirred up revulsion inside me.

This is the stuff from which revolution is far too easily made, if we allow it. Whether in the mines or anywhere else, living and working conditions that – 18 years after the coming of democracy – still deliver neither human dignity nor economic justice, have become a cancer spreading across our country.

Poverty and its consequences are clearly portrayed in scripture as evil. And this evil all too often arises from structural deficiencies rooted in moral failings.

Of course, the problems can be complex. If there were simple, easy answers to poverty, to inequality, to unemployment, someone somewhere would have found them by now.

This is why we need good research on strategies to overcome poverty and inequality. This is why we need comprehensive policy initiatives like the National Development Plan. But more important, we need a serious and urgent commitment to implement pledges that have been made since the dawn of the mining charter.

Those discussions recognised that the conditions under which mine workers worked were unacceptable. That situation still remains. We have not been true to the spirit of many of the policies passed in the past 18 years. Indeed the tragedy of Marikana did not come from nowhere.

It came about because we have been content to let things slide. They have slid in policy-making and implementation; in attitudes that allow economic inequalities to grow; in acceptance of high and low-level corruption, and in ineffectual implementation of good governance and the rule of law.

They have slid in the worsening trust between government and citizens, politicians and people.

In the midst of all this, trouble fermented in the mining sector in particular, and gave rise to the tragedy that shocked the whole world and cast all of us in a bad light. It is, as Mamphela Ramphele has said, above all a failure of leadership: in politics, but also in business, and in the cosy relationship they too often enjoy.

Our leaders are the deaf, who cannot hear the loud cries of the hungry, the homeless, the needy, the oppressed.

Our leaders are the blind, who cannot see what is right in front of their faces.

And what of the church? We must be doers of the word, not hearers only. We cannot remain silent. What we see and hear, we must speak out about.

And so while there may be many other challenges that have led to this situation, it is important to speak quite clearly about the urgent need to fast-track transformation in the mining sector by asking a few difficult questions:

It is clear from these questions that the recent developments in mining show us the huge gap that has been left to develop.

Viewed differently these are questions which, when answered, can generate a sense of hope for what can be achieved.

The inequality gap between the rich and poor – the worst in the world by all accounts – is clearly morally indefensible and economically unsustainable, if the downgrades by international agencies as well as the weakening rand are anything to go by.

Which means, as Roosevelt surmised, we will not succeed in engendering a sense of progress and hope until we provide for the poor and the downtrodden.

We need to urge the social partners and government to start looking at what austerity measures are necessary across industries to once and for all focus on the big question of redress as a crucible of hope amidst all the despair that is the aftermath of Marikana.

My time in Marikana left me with the sense that this country is like a smouldering log that, left unattended, lies ready to ignite at the slightest wind.

There is real urgency in these matters I am raising here.

Yet I remain an optimist, for I have faith in the living God, whose word to us is peace and hope and new life.

His gospel promises us a better future.

Therefore, this is not a message of doom – it is a call to wake up and act.

All South Africans must rekindle the vision of a free, fair, just, South Africa which inspired the peaceful transition to democracy – and we must work and pray to bring it about.

Never again must talk of “bloodbath” become a reality within our country. If we do the right things, hope is possible.

Makgoba is the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town

-The Sunday Independent