'It's time for miners to benefit'

By Right Reverend Dr Jo Seoka Time of article published Oct 30, 2012

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Over the next few days we will be discussing minerals and a just world, and will ask the question “Whose resources?” I suspect this is the most important question that faces South Africa and Africa today. We are aware of the scramble for Africa’s minerals.

Most of these minerals are essential to production processes in Europe, China and the US, and fulfil various needs. Platinum is used in heart bypass surgery, in the car manufacturing industry, and in cellphones and other electronic equipment. Coal is used to generate electricity and South Africa is a leading export nation of coal. Gold is valuable and has always been in demand.

If Africa is rich in mineral resources, then surely Africa should be highly developed. In South Africa we have had mining for over 100 years and this helped develop the economy and also held it back. A paradox it seems, but one that is understandable given what we have been witnessing over the past two to three months.

In this conference we will be discussing how minerals can bring about development and what ownership models would be best. We will look at how Norway and Sweden have used their minerals to develop evenly developed economies and are shining examples of democratic economic systems. These countries also display low levels of inequality, and poverty is nonexistent. Rather, they have used their minerals to benefit their populations at large.

We will also hear from mining communities across southern Africa and the Southern African Development Community on their experiences of mining and how communities bear the brunt of negative impacts, such as loss of land, polluted water, general health problems, or low wages for workers who live tin shacks and dig up the wealth. The question is: are African countries benefiting? Who is benefiting? Who are the winners and who are the losers. This tells the story of mining in Africa.

In South Africa we have a deep history of mining forcing people off the land, the use of cheap migrant labour, very low wages, extremely bad living conditions and huge negative impacts on communities. What has changed from 100 years ago to now? Not much.

Let me illustrate this by telling you about my experience in Marikana and what I witnessed in my role as mediator and negotiator during the Lonmin strike. The killings at Marikana could have been avoided if management had only listened to the workers’ concerns. There was really no need for the strike, let alone the violence that occurred, leading to the loss of 44 lives.

A democracy should provide for the human rights of all citizens, including the right to decent work, a living wage and collective bargaining. South Africa won its democratic character through negotiations where people came together to talk and discuss their way towards a solution for the common good for all.

It is for this reason that the nation and the world were shocked at the news of the brutal killings of the miners. Platinum is one of the most precious resources the country has to use for its development. Our constitution is said to be one of the best in the world, but the majority of citizens are yet to enjoy the freedom provided for by our constitution.

On our visit to the Marikana mines on August 16 we first made contact with the strikers on the koppie. Having introduced ourselves, we asked how we could help to resolve the conflict, which at that point had already cost 10 lives. The spokesperson for the workers asked that we convey their desire for the employer to come and address them. The workers asked specifically for Mr Ian Farmer, whom they called umqashi (employer). Without promising anything, we left for the mine to ask Mr Farmer to come with us to talk to the strikers.

At the mine offices we met three managers who told us that workers could not see Farmer because he was not in the country, as he was sick in London. We asked that someone address the strikers in his place, but we were told that the management would not talk to criminals because they had killed security personnel.

We pleaded with them, and ultimately we met with Lieutenant General Zukiswa Mbombo who told us that they were concerned with security, which was not negotiable. She left us with management, who told us to inform the strikers that management would only talk to them if they surrendered their weapons; elected between five and eight people to represent them; and dispersed from the koppie.

As we were leaving, one of the managers told us that we could not go back to the koppie because it was now a security risk area under the police. We then headed for the road back to Gauteng and 15 minutes thereafter my cellphone rang and a voice said on the other side: “the police are killing us”. We could hear the bullets but could not do anything. The following day we saw on the news one of the leaders we spoke with lying dead – the man in the green blanket.

Here is a country that claims to promote dialogue, while in fact being at war with itself. How can we forget so soon how we have arrived at where we are today? There is an African proverb that says that things are corrected through talking. People are encouraged to talk about their differences instead of resorting to fighting. It is for this reason that we believe the mine management could have done things differently, especially since the workers had asked them to create a space for discussions.

It is not a matter of who shot at whom first – important as this question is – but rather finding a solution is what really matters to save more lives from violence and to address the flaws in our democratic society. The judicial commission established by President Jacob Zuma is welcomed. We hope it will be able to consult widely in order to get to the truth about the killings in Marikana. This has to be done in the context of widespread poverty, exclusion and profiteering at any cost.

“Our policy gap studies reveal a context of increasing community resistance to mining and the costs of mining being passed on to communities.”

But the reason I tell you this story is because it is symptomatic of a much bigger social and investment problem facing Africa. We know in the Democratic Republic of Congo that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed over resource extraction. In Tanzania over 200 000 artisanal miners lost their jobs when AngloGold Ashanti and Barrick Gold entered under the guise of investment. This brings me to the question of what investment is. Can investment under private ownership that is for the benefit of the shareholders really bring about holistic development? When investment is modelled under the precept that governs multinational companies to pursue their material self-interest at any cost and at the lowest cost possible, is this really beneficial and to whom?

In South Africa over the past two months we have witnessed huge discontent in mining, with over 100 000 mine workers going on strike demanding a bigger share of the wealth they generate. But this is just the tip of the iceberg and we have seen discontent in other sectors boiling over and this has resulted in credit rating agencies downgrading South Africa.

We must ask about our sovereignty and if democracy is working if rating agencies determine our economic policy. They say they want certainty, which really means low wages, high profits and little investment in communities. When workers demand dignity, a living wage and fair treatment,we are downgraded.

Our studies have shown and continue to show a widening gap between communities’ aspirations and the reality of workers in conflict with the powers that be. What we witness on the platinum belt has been coming for a long time, and we, as the Bench Marks Foundation, have warned since 2007 about the explosive situation that exists in mining. Our warnings have gone unheeded.

What can we learn from the Marikana and Lonmin catastrophe?

Our policy gap studies reveal a context of increasing community resistance to mining and the huge costs of mining being passed on to local communities. This is done through companies’ labour policies of not providing proper living conditions and giving workers a meagre living out allowance where workers cannot afford proper accommodation.

This leads to overcrowding, proliferation of informal communities, shanty towns and competition between locals and migrant labour over scarce resources. Little commitment is shown by the government or the corporations to effectively deal with these negative impacts.

We have an economy where the proceeds of wealth are distributed so unevenly with a culture of entitlement among top executives that they believe they actually deserve remuneration of R15 million a year. It’s shocking and can’t go unchallenged. This culture of individualism, all for me, no matter the cost to other people, tells us we lack a consciousness around our actions. My experience at Lonmin was that the executives had no conscience. What is a society without a conscience? The three top Lonmin executives in 2011 earned R46m and this equalled the total salaries of 4 200 rock drillers (R44m).

This should alarm us all that such inequalities in income exist in the new South Africa. Surely workers and citizens expected things to change and to have a better life. Instead, things in many ways have remained the same, with white elites now joined by black elites, and a convergence of interests, power monopolies and all at the expense of the black majority who are working class, poor and vulnerable.

There is a crisis of leadership at multiple levels, with government leaders too close to corporations and many refer to the ANC as African National Connections. Has our struggle for a free and democratic society been taken over in the interests of big capital at the expense of the common good? These questions need to be interrogated. After the massacre at Marikana, all we heard from the government and the company was messages to the investors.

The only message from Lonmin, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), a few days after the massacre was: get back to work.

Then the president intervened, calling on a period of mourning. Who was the NUM supporting and how could Lonmin disregard what had just happened and not understand local custom and tradition?

As for the DMR, I understood the DMR to be saying “we are here to only protect investment and this we will do at any cost”. And 34 workers lost their lives in one afternoon at the altar of profits for a few. What about transformation in the industry? Let me tell you the only transformation has been around empowering a few well-connected political individuals.

Political patronage is the rule of the day, with the Ramaphosas and other senior politically connected individuals, including public servants, who are benefiting. But they are only benefiting because of their political connections.

The Bench Marks Foundation’s studies reveal that communities are up in arms about this kind of crony empowerment and demand that they are the broad-based partner on whose land these mines operate. They suffer the consequences but do not benefit. I lay the blame for this at the companies’ door.

They believe if they have well-connected politicians on their boards or as their empowerment partner, that they can then more or less ride roughshod over communities and workers. In this way, corporations trump government agenda and influence labour, environmental and social policy. What is the average wage in South Africa? From what I hear, read and see, it’s about R2 500 a month. No one can live on this; it’s an affront to human dignity.

We must remember the history of mining in South Africa, of cheap black labour, racism and exploitation. This is the model for the rest of Africa too. If we look at Marikana as a microcosm of South Africa and really of mining in Africa, we witness growing discontent, growing inequalities, a widening gap between rich and poor, and all the resultant problems of poverty, unemployment and destitution.

But who is blamed? Not big capital, but workers. The Lonmin workers are victims of structural violence in our society. This is informed by low wages, very bad living conditions, bad nutrition, health and safety problems, HIV and Aids and no hope for a better life. It is bigger than an industrial dispute or labour relations, and all the tinkering with collective bargaining, interdicts by the corporations to get workers back to work and ignoring the root causes will not stop the resistance by workers and communities for a better life.

The media, the government and the corporations want us to believe that there are agitators, provocateurs, but so many workers together campaigning for a living wage do so out of desperation and want their voices heard.

We believe social relations should be above the relations of things, of material consumption and consumerism. This false philosophy of individualism – “all for me” and “dog eats dog” – is destroying our society. It is an attack on human dignity and respect, on living a life of abundance, of opportunity and self-realisation.

Africa has always been rich in community relations, in the sharing of democratic participation in decision making and all of this has been destroyed by capitalism that promotes false values, an empty life and material greed.

“Ubuntu is a loosely used word that has no real meaning… if we recognised that I am because you are, surely the rich will have to change.”

There are winners and losers in our economic system, the winners are a few already rich elites and the losers are workers, who make the wealth, and ordinary citizens who suffer the ill consequences.

Ubuntu is a loosely used word that has no real meaning, because if we recognised that I am because you are, surely the rich will have to change because of their conscience. Love thy neighbour as they self; do unto others as you would like them to do unto you; it will be as difficult for a rich man to get into heaven as it would be for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. Why? Because as economist Amartya Sen proved, as one group of people’s income rises faster than the national average, another group of people’s income will decline.

This is part of the challenge we face, as one group of people steal from the poor to make themselves rich, another group of people are going to suffer. This is what is happening in South Africa, whether we look at the remuneration of top executives or that of tenderpreneurs, or crony capitalists or the historically advantaged, and all at the expense of a moral functional society. Greed and material self-pursuit endanger our path of realising a better country.

How can those who have so much at the expense of others, sleep at night; where is their moral compass?

Have we forgotten that we fought against this to build a new egalitarian society? One based on the common good, on values held by Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, of Ubuntu, of sharing and giving. Have we forgotten it is much better to try and understand than to be understood?

Marikana gives us a chance to either look at this as an opportunity to reflect on who resources belong to and what kind of just world do we want.

Or everything can be swept under the carpet and a right-wing view dominate; that of rogue elements destabilising mining and our society. We need to recognise now that our economic system is not working. It takes from the poor to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

What is not recognised is that these are bread and butter issues, a day-to-day survival issue, and if this is not dealt with, then expect many Marikanas.

So I open this Just World Conference – Whose Resources, and know that the outcomes of this conference will help to shape and inform policy worldwide on just extraction, on who benefits and how we can change resource extraction to something that benefits people, communities, workers and society.

Let me lastly acknowledge the people who have organised this event and then welcome all of you here today. I know we have representatives from communities, civil society, unions, embassies, church leaders and bishops from across Africa; donor partners, some business leaders, government and universities and think-tank organisations.

Right Reverend Dr Jo Seoka is the chairman of Bench Marks Foundation. This is the edited version of his speech at the Just World Conference 2012 in Johannesburg.

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