Deadly turf battles veil real disgrace of miners’ ruined lives

br labour illustration

Take a look at the following statement: “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 Platinum (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 spokesman Lesiba Seshoka admitted that Amcu’s claimed minority of 1 000 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 as a legitimate trade union.

It was accepted that Amcu was founded at the Douglas colliery in Mpumalanga in 1998 by disgruntled former members of NUM. The union was legally recognised by the Labour Department in 2001 and is now an affiliate of the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).

This seems to have been ignored over the past 10 days. Allegations emerged from NUM that Amcu had appeared almost overnight as a proxy for the Chamber of Mines; SACP general secretary and Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, also claimed that AMCU was a “pseudo trade union funded by BHP Billiton”, the world’s largest mining conglomerate.

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 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, Cyril Ramaphosa, NUM’s first general secretary – not only because he is now a millionaire businessman, but because he is also a director of Lonmin.

Facts that add to the anger – and will almost certainly be exploited too – are that a former NUM president, James Motlatsi, became the chairman of AngloGold and that a one-time deputy general secretary of the union, Marcel Golding, became a billionaire businessman through the union-backed Hosken Consolidated Investments.

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

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 atrocious 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 can be devastating, especially in an unfettered and loosely regulated environment that so many in business are again calling for.

Just how devastating came solidly to the fore on Tuesday 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 a 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.


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