Striking miners face off with police at Lonmins Marikana mine. File photo: Reuters.
Striking miners face off with police at Lonmins Marikana mine. File photo: Reuters.

Marikana: 20 years in the making

By Time of article published Oct 21, 2012

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Professor Philip Frankel, the author of the first book to emerge on the Marikana massacre, mining and modern South Africa, says the shootings that shocked the world have been 20 years in the making. Many said that Marikana – the ANC’s Sharpeville – could have taken place in an ostensibly democratic society, in the rainbow nation, is almost inconceivable. But an in-depth look at the conditions surrounding the event tell another story.

Marikana appears much as it did before its rise to international infamy. The small community with no particular history seems to have settled back into the doldrums. There are no discernible signs of disturbance in the streets. Road-blocks, manned by a mixture of bored soldiers and police, are very discrete at town-limits. At the local SAPS station work continues on the construction of “five-star police cells” prominently advertised on a large board. Is this a joke or need we book for Christmas?

The residents of the nearby Nkaneng informal settlement go about their daily tasks in ankle-deep human shit, plastic bags and mud following days of rain. Corrugated boxes, scarcely big enough for the pigs and goats among the litter, serve for human shelter. All this is in sight of the towering Lonmin smelter just outside the main town.

Most of the miners have now gone back to work, but shiver with each daily blast of the rockface. They remember the gunfire. The company, as far as anyone knows, does not offer trauma counselling.

To the contrary, there is a huge production deficit, thousands of ounces of platinum, that needs making up if the company wants some profit margin.

Talk in the shanties is that mine management is about to install underground clock-in mechanisms to make sure you can’t leave the workplace before your shift has ended. This means eight to nine hours of back-breaking incarceration. The message is clear – you’ll work every inch for your new wages.

In the smog-filed sunshine lie miles of newly rolled-out shiny clean coils of barbed wire. This peters off near Wonderkop where the local Tswana elite survive by renting “up-market” shacks to respectable Xhosa migrants, mainly supervisors and team leaders on the mine.

Small Koppies, where the “extra” killings took place in the midst of huge electric pylons has become a shrine. Everyone “goes to the mountain” on pilgrimage. Some stay all day waiting for the arrival of the press. Today Dali Tambo holds forth to friends and families of the victims. Julius? Never heard of him!

The people of Nkaneng, excepting the women who have organised a “we-want-justice” campaign, are unwilling to communicate their traumatic experience except to those they trust. This is partly because sub-judice provides an excuse to avoid an obviously painful subject, but also because everyone in South Africa, particularly the mining industry, is desperately trying to wish Marikana away.

Much like Rwanda for many years after the 1994 genocide, there is a portentous silence at the killing grounds ranged across the bare veld. Something is out there, to paraphrase Nadine Gordimer, that doth not speak its name.

The irony, of course, is that Marikana is more than just an unfortunate event. It is, in fact, the result of a process of degenerative civil society in the North West and other provinces that back-dates to 1994.

Given the conditions in the mine and those in the rest of the mining industry, 16/08 could have occurred just about anywhere. And this repeat tragedy could still happen given the current volatility in the mining industry.

To fully appreciate this atrocity we need to assess what transpired both before and after the massacre – and this requires we recognise some unpalatable facts about how we generate not only valuable platinum, but also other precious minerals, for sale on the global market.

Firstly, mining is increasingly reliant, despite the horrors perpetrated on mass migration under apartheid, on contract labour which is almost always dangerous, unskilled, volatile and socially marginalised.

About 40 percent of Marikana workers and most of the inhabitants of the Nkaneng (the “forced-place” in Tswana) fall into this category. But there are other mines along the western platinum limb near Rustenburg where 70 percent to 80 percent of labour are migrants at different levels of geographic motion.

A very large proportion of these workers are ferried to mines like Lonmin by unscrupulous labour brokers, whose dubious business is to import desperate and jobless people from regional poverty nodes, in the Eastern Cape, Lesotho and even further afield across national boundaries in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This reflects the growing preference of the mining bosses for contract labour which is cheap, dispensable, un-unionised, makes few demands on profit margins and is, above all, compliant.

Importing labour makes huge profits for the brokers who arrive with their human cargo on the streets of Marikana, typically outside Liquor Boys if young men are designated for Karee Shaft or near Prof Herbal Medicines from where human cargo is dispatched to Eastern or Western Shaft, also operated by Lonmin.

Most of the brokers are illicit and work closely with taxi drivers and others in the transportation sector in what is essentially human trafficking.

Many of the people on the veld on August 16 were the products – even if they are unaware – of a very lengthy, complex, low risk but hugely lucrative supply chain that runs from points-of-origin, or so-called “labour-sending areas” direct to mine procurement offices.

“General” labour of this type is understandably volatile because it is maintained under slave-like conditions in many mines across the lucrative western limb of the platinum belt well away from management oversight. This is a need-to-know situation in which by-stander mine officials are surprisingly incurious about the skills, education or capability of groups of young men who will, within hours of arrival, find themselves traumatised in the dark deep bowels of the shafts.

The whole process is ensured by deception at the point of recruitment – young men are offered inflated salaries – but are then debt-bondaged on arrival, or when the first month’s pay comes around and the brokers make their deductions. Since this often far supersedes income, the exploitative net spreads to involve opportunistic money-lenders, some of whom are reputedly the local agents of bigger criminal networks run by Johannesburg-based West African syndicates. These are involved not only in loan-sharking to miners and other urban people, but also racketeering, drugs, and illegal trade in small armaments.

A highly profitable side-line involves commercial sex trafficking of young girls or even children to service the needs of both contract and more permanent members of the Marikana mining workforce.

While most of these sex-workers operate out of Rustenburg – one of the main distribution points for sex slaves coming across the borders or in profusion from our rural areas – many come on “picnics” to Marikana and nearby mining settlements where they work out of locked shacks under close supervision by their minders.

Many Marikana women or their offspring have also turned to sex work as a survival strategy because there are few other jobs for women in the area.

As we have inferred, training of contract workers, as well as others destined for the permanent ranks of the company, ranges from nothing to minimal because Lonmin management, much like mine managers across the country, are determined to get labour into production as quickly as possible.

Miners at Marikana speak of arriving by bus, given a short “induction course”, told to produce if they want to keep their jobs, armed with a shovel and put immediately underground.

They speak to those who will listen, of not wearing protection gear because of a bizarre rule that safety equipment be kept clean at all times. This includes the standard, but totally dysfunctional, white overalls issued by the mine.

In the circumstances miners strip in the hot, humid and cramped workplace. Much safety equipment is stolen, sold and subsequently not replaced because mine bosses are attempting to curb the market in expensive helmets.

Many of the development stopes on the western limb are being mined desperately fast to make up production losses over the last year. This often means that adequate ventilation has not yet been installed. Miners work at short intervals of 20 minutes in a stope and then come out gasping.

For this and multiple other violations of human dignity they are paid production bonuses whose purpose is to encourage risk-taking and short cuts that undermine some of the technically most progressive mine safety legislation in the world.

Unfortunately, the bonus often disappears along the chain of command leaving the miner even more dependent on local loan-sharks. It also makes him, or her, more open to risk-taking, to get the bonus to pay the money-lender. This often leads to serious accidents or deaths in a profoundly hazardous sub-surface environment.

At Lonmin 13 miners have died since 2005 and the lost-time frequency rate measured per million hours worked (LTIFR) of 4.7 is abysmally bad when one compares it with that in other countries such as Canada or Australia, where the LTIFR is often a percentile of one.

In the grander scale of things the few deaths at Marikana are inconsequential. Over 70 000 people are “reported” to have died from accidents and industrial disturbances in South African mining since its inception. These exclude the estimated 300 injuries per day – many of which are lost-time injuries (that is serious) and hundreds of thousands of workers who are boarded and returned home suffering from deficient hearing or respiratory diseases linked to silicosis and tuberculosis (TB) mixed in with HIV/Aids.

Despite some minimal improvements, South Africa still has the highest mining death rate in the industrialised world.

Nothing of this has been mentioned in the reporting on Marikana. The “strikers” have also been comfortably dehumanised and everything written off to “inter-union competition which lets the mines, the police and even the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) off the hook.

In actuality, the strike at Marikana has been brewing for many months and dates back to industrial disturbances leading Lonmin to lay-off 9 000 workers in July 2011. Most of these miners were re-employed but, in contrast to the normal practice of importing subservient rural labour, Lonmin recruited fairly experienced and politicised workers from brokers who were, for various reasons, disinclined to work outside the Rustenburg area.

These were fed mainly into Karee 3 shaft, whose leadership was already at odds with the NUM on both political and personal ground and whose rock drillers were dissatisfied with the absence of assistants to help them in the workplace.

All of these elements formed the delegation sent to Lonmin management a few days before 16/08 to request assistants for the RDO’s (rock drill operators) or increases tantamount to the pay to assistants working in Eastern and Western shafts.

While the demand for an all-round pay increase of 9 percent was largely the thinking of the new Rustenburg “militants”, Lonmin management curtly denied the request sending a low level functionary to advise the protesters to use the conventional channels, that is the very NUM officials with whom the people were at odds.

The subsequent march to the NUM office triggered 16/08 when NUM officials saw the approaching crowd, probably panicked, and then fired directly on their own members.

In the aftermath of the massacre, almost the entire labour force, but especially the rock drillers without whose services mining is impossible, have been alienated from NUM. This is not only because of the violence in which union leaders killed their own members, but also because of a long-standing dissatisfaction, centred on Karee 3, with the capability of the NUM to express popular demands.

Lonmin management, though imperially silent, has also apparently jumped on the band-wagon of criticism against the NUM, less because it is not performing its representative functions, but more for its failure to keep its own members in line – as it clearly has not.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) is in turn not rising as fast as it should, despite its patent ability to secure pay rises. This is partially because management is uncertain of the tiger released into the labour arena in place of the old union leaders, and is cautious to give it recognition.

In the shanties and hostels AMCU is also viewed with less fervour than press coverage suggests. The greater majority of miners are uncertain about the content of its practical programme for the future, and many suspect that it is an opportunist network whose primary purpose is to displace the NUM and allied parties in running the highly profitable labour broking networks.

In the interregnum, most people belong to neither union, while the shafts are run by amorphous but self-generating worker committees.

Mine management, one would think, would be have been aware of the dynamics, particularly the dissatisfaction at Karee 3 and the growing hostility towards the NUM, with its power-base in Eastern and Western shafts. Management, after all, employs two private security forces – its own and another contracted from Protea Coin – which should perform intelligence functions.

Having said this, most mine managers throughout the industry are frequently the last to know of developments in their own backyard because of complete disconnection with the workforce. It is a telling fact that few senior managers ever go down into the shafts (except after accidents), and that none of the protesters who initially went to Lonmin offices had ever even seen a mine manager, despite having worked at Marikana for ten or twelve years.

With certain rare exceptions, mine management, living in its own narrow universe, lacks leadership (which is different to management) and confuses what it believes it does with what actually impacts on people literally down below.

As the Chamber of Mines and others have repeatedly pointed out, there are serious “problems of organisational culture” in South African mines.

What this means when translated is that there is huge distrust at all levels, lack of accountability, care and far less value placed on human life than on meeting production targets. Efforts to improve safety, which means improved production and business excellence, have been largely tactical, “spray-and-pray” affairs, which diminish the critical role of human factors – be they management, supervisors or labour itself.

So our mines remain both unsafe and unproductive.

In understanding the collective anger of workers, we also need to look along the surface at the dusty landscape linking the various shafts of the mine.

Lonmin has built a clinic for the local people but has, in their perceptions, done little else to diminish what most workers see as their barbarous and callous existence. Conditions in Nkaneng speak (or smell) for themselves and the shanty settlement is, in many ways, a labour camp for people to sleep on an inter-shift basis.

There are hostels, some new and displayed to the visiting members of the Farlan Commission, but there are others that remain unadvertised, where eight men share a room with four toilets for almost 200 workers.

The Bojanelo district that surrounds Marikana has one of the highest HIV rates in the country: at least party of this has to do, as local residents, point out, with the influx of contract workers who compete with the indigenous inhabitants for both jobs and sexual opportunities.

The whole area, as a recent Benchmarks report points out, is profoundly polluted and both unliveable and unminable in many places. This is the direct result of ecologically destructive policies by companies like Lonmin whose activities impact negatively on water, air quality and ultimately on people.

The role of the state in all of this is highly salient and reflects problems of local government and the justice system, which reflect poorly on a country that claims to be stable, effective and democratic twenty years after 1994.

Local government in Bojanelo and Rustenburg is notoriously corrupt, overtly murderous and, much like local government nation-wide, almost totally incapacitated. This represents a major problem for Lonmin and other companies in servicing community development even in cases where most programmes have no reality and exist only in the tick boxes of annual reports.

The local police, other than when they are busy with crowd control, have also, for example, done absolutely nothing about the human trade in women and workers that goes on under their noses. This is, to put it generously, because they lack interest in these violations of human rights when there is so much else to do.

Or as is the case with human trafficking nation-wide, they would not recognise a crime of this sort even when they see one. All this despite our new anti-trafficking legislation and South Africa being at the centre of a region that is widely recognised as one of the ten biggest global routes for trafficking in persons and modern slavery.

The Farlan Commission will no doubt do what it has to (and one hopes this excludes nothing as was the case with its predecessor after Sharpeville fifty years ago). Either way the mining industry needs to heed the wake-up call from Marikana and abutting mines to revisit itself.

This means more robust action to pro-actively address human risk below and above ground through customised research and strategic action around leadership, communications, community development and the mind-sets of people in the industry working at all levels, including senior and middle management, as well as front-line supervisors who are increasingly “gatvol” with the ongoing problems of the industry.

If mining starts to walk-the-talk about its people, it will not vindicate Marikana. But it will bring a step-change in our greater nation-building project.

Professor Philip Frankel was a political scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand. He wrote the authoritative study of the Sharpeville Massacre – An Ordinary Atrocity: Sharpeville and its Massacre published by Yale University Press and Route South: No Exits: Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Democracy in SA (forthcoming). Since 2002 Frankel has worked as a consultant for the Office of the President and the Department of Mineral Resources and firms including Anglo American and Sasol. His new book Between the Rainbow and the Rain: Marikana, Mining and the Crisis of Modern South Africa is expected to be published by the end of the year.

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