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State fails Marikana workers by not paying lawyers

Published Sep 18, 2013


The Bench Marks Foundation has taken a principled position to support the demands of the injured and arrested workers of Marikana for legal representation of their choice at the Farlam Commission. The government could have paid the legal fees of those most in need of proper representation before the commission.

The Marikana massacre is viewed by the world as a blot on our democracy. Shooting workers who withdrew their labour to demonstrate obviously says that any discontent will be dealt with ruthlessly. Is this the message we want to convey?

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In the days after August 16 last year, Lonmin, the Department of Mineral Resources and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) called on workers to resume duties.

But they were in shock and it took the president to call for a week of mourning. This callous attitude shown by the authorities, and Lonmin’s insensitivity and failure to even recognise the magnitude of what had just happened, poses a huge threat to our democracy.

We need to know the order of events and we need to understand the full context. What we do know is: there was political interference; Lonmin’s major black economic empowerment partner asked the state to take concomitant action; the response by the police was brutal; 34 workers were killed in one afternoon with another 76 injured and some permanently disabled; and about 200 workers were arrested.

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We also know that the striking workers sat on a rocky hill top, away from Lonmin’s operations. Further, we know that in the six days preceding the strike, many workers, security personnel and policemen lost their lives too.

The media and state tried to make as if this was purely an inter-union rivalry dispute, but the Bench Marks Foundation has knowledge that this was not entirely so. The workers on the rocky hill were mostly un-unionised. Lonmin’s own records show that the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union was recruiting among non-unionised workers and not competing with NUM.

What we don’t really know is the full context of what gave rise to the dispute; the socio-economic conditions, which, if not fully understood, will lead to unsubstantiated findings by the commission.

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But we are aware of the need for effective representation of those killed, injured, arrested and those who now suffer the psychological scars. What has been unreported in the media is growing suicides among workers and community members.

Lonmin and the state can afford costly legal representation, while the Department of Mineral Resources has a legal observer, sitting and doing nothing. But, when it comes to injured and arrested workers who can least afford legal representation, the government refuses to support them. Why? Does it not want the truth to come out? If the truth comes out, will the government be implicated?

Because of our principled position, the commission will be deprived of our submissions that deal with the social, economic and environmental context, and our warnings of turmoil on the platinum belt.

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The victims will be deprived of justice as our evidence points to some of the root causes. If these are not understood, the commission will not be able to arrive at a fair judgment. This deprives workers of their right to a just hearing as the context is the mitigating factor that ultimately gave rise to the massacre.

Our democracy is at stake. What does it mean if workers are deprived of proper legal representation and if the Bench Marks Foundation, a leading authority on socio-economic impacts, cannot give testimony?

The government must come to its senses. It has to support the victims. It cannot suppress their voices by refusing to fund their legal representatives. It is of moral importance that the state is seen to support the victims and not the perpetrators, whatever the financial limits are.

Given the context, it is really an insignificant amount of money.

The government’s position suffocates the voices of workers. Without the voices of the workers and the Bench Marks Foundation’s expert testimony, justice will not be seen to be done. Anger will mount and resentment will spill over into other areas, especially on the platinum belt.

The psychological scars will remain, healing will not take place and our nation will be soured if justice for workers is not looked after. If not handled with complete fairness, the massacre will send us down a road of peril and the government will increasingly be seen to be acting in an authoritarian manner.

For the government not to act and give support to workers, it misses a chance to construct a better South Africa.

We cannot afford as a nation to deprive victims of their representation. We have to understand the context, and learn the lessons we need to learn. We need corrective action that addresses the context – the role of mining houses in fuelling conflict, the role of politically connected individuals, patronage at play and our development of elites – all of which often override the concerns of workers and the poor.

John Capel is the executive director of the Bench Marks Foundation, a church-funded NGO.

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