One of the difficulties one faces in South Africa is finding out the truth of what is happening. Newspapers are not what they were, and the television channels suffer the same fate: and non-governmental organisations have their own agendas. And so it has been with the Marikana massacre. As the world knows by now, miners where shot and killed when the South African police opened fire on what they perceived to be the beginnings of an attack by a large group of strikers.
The strikers claimed to be all rock-drill operators in Lonmin’s platinum mines and demanded a pay increase to R12 000 from R4 500. So began a series of reports condemning Lonmin for paying outrageously low wages.
Comparisons were made with salaries paid to Lonmin’s top management and the cars they drove. Some television reports had a miner waving his pay slip, complaining that he only got R4 500 a month and had to live in a shack.
The comparison was also made with the Sharpeville shooting in which 60 people died at the hands of the police, back in 1960. That was how it first looked to the public both here and abroad.
It was a picture of unfeeling capitalism, out of control police, rampant exploitation, and a trade union woefully out of touch with its members.
Slowly more details emerged. Lonmin said it paid far more than R4 500 a month to rock-drill operators, closer to R10 000. The strike was not so much about wages, but the result of an internecine battle for membership between the established National Union of Mineworkers and a union that was stealing its members and presumably their membership dues – a not inconsiderable sum since the NUM allegedly has 300 000 members.
If each member contributes only R20 a month to the union, that is R6 million pouring in every month. In fact the dues are much higher than R20 a month. Few in the media reported this.
Government’s response was slow, not helped by the president’s absence. The minister of mineral resources seemed paralysed as well. Lonmin settled quite quickly, agreeing to a massive pay hike of 22 percent, and as swift as light, other miners clamoured for the same.
Wildcat strikes spread from platinum belt to gold mines and iron mines. Soon 60 000 miners were on strike.
When the government did take action, it was to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry led by a retired judge.
The terms of reference were wide, but the behaviour of the mine owners and mine management were first on the list of its terms of reference.
So right from the start the mine owners and managers were assumed to be mainly at fault. They were blamed for the fact that most miners lived in shacks close to the mine. Why did they not build houses for their workers? Why did they not put in sewers, piped water and electricity? They were rich enough. Profits were always high, weren’t they? Anyway, the platinum belonged to the people who were being exploited by the “bosses”.
However, a Sky News report inadvertently challenged this. Sky’s reporter, flown in for the story, followed the accepted line and interviewed a shack dweller. It was not a miner, but a miner’s significant other. The camera swiftly took in the interior of the shack. There was a fridge in one corner, a carpet on the floor, and a microwave – all seemingly new.
Sky’s intrepid reporter said: “Oh, I see you have a microwave.” She opened its door, looked inside and saw a pair of shoes. “Oh, you are using it as storage.” she said and closed the door.
The next shot was of the reporter leaving the shack to do a face-to-camera. In the background was a television aerial on the shack, constructed of shiny new corrugated iron. Could the miner have paid for the fridge, microwave, and television set with his savings? Was there a generator as well somewhere in the shack, needed to run the appliances? Was there an electric stove too? In addition, new corrugated sheeting is not cheap. Common sense says a monthly income of R4 500 makes cash payments for these things impossible. How then, was it done?
Lonmin claimed that rock-drill operators earned close to R10 000 a month. Was it likely that hire-purchase payments had eaten into this wage leaving only R4 500?
Also Lonmin also said that it paid a living-out allowance of R1 500 a month on top of the wages it paid to rock drillers – in fact to everyone who preferred to live off site or could not get into the converted hostels now turned into family dwellings, nor into the brand new houses Lonmin was building.
Deductions for pension contributions, possibly for medical aid as well, would also eat into basic pay.
It was left to a Sapa reporter, who dig deeper.
However, after six introductory paragraphs, the following was reported.
“A large bed, a plastic garden chair, an electric stove, a refrigerator, a television set and a DVD player are all squeezed into a space of just 12m2.”
Later: “The shanty landlord – the first to have squatted on the piece of land in the 1990s – charges R350 a month for rent and R100 a month for electricity.”
Assuming this miner is also paying off debts and, had deducted from his wages a pension contribution, a medical aid deduction and even perhaps a garnishee order on top of it, then no wonder it is difficult to make ends meet.
Not so the landlord who is in a very lucrative cash and tax-free business.
Significantly, after the Sky report, a team of inspectors from the National Credit Regulator (NCR) swooped on thirteen microlenders operating from the Marikana township.
Microlenders are a new phenomenon. Some obey the rules, others do not and are best described as loan sharks.
What the inspectors found was “severe indebtedness” among miners exacerbated by “malpractice by lenders and debt collection agents”. They could have added slum landlords.
Although most microlenders were registered with the NCR the inspectors found that many were in breach of a host of National Credit Act regulations and criminal laws. Of the six searched on the first day, five were breaking the law.
One possessed its borrowers’ ID books and credit cards which were being used as “a collection method”.
Another routinely doubled the size of any loan if collection was by means of a garnishee order.
Such orders can only be granted by a court and under oath. One lender got around this by using blank-signed process documents, including consent to judgment, to persuade the mine employers to deduct from wages of the debtor.
Affordability tests required by law appeared to be honoured only in the breach.
Considering all the above, quite a different picture emerges of the causes of the Lonmin strike and the rapid spread of demands for massive jumps in wages that were demanded, not through recognised unions, but often by workers’ committees led by shop floor leaders. The bosses look less guilty now.
People undoubtedly live outside the mines in appalling conditions, but to pin this all on mine management alone, as many non-governmental organisations did at the start, and journalists initially took up with little investigation, is knee-jerk anti-capitalism.
Nowhere has there been any mention of the enormous contribution the mining industry makes to the Treasury and the economy in general.
Nowhere has been mentioned the massive additional amounts mining houses spend on social investment.
Truth, as they say, is grey. And there are two sides to every story. Let’s hope the Marikana Commission digs deep and considers all the facts before pronouncing.
Keith Bryer is a communications consultant who has worked occasionally for the platinum industry. He writes in his personal capacity.