The senseless killing of the 34 mine workers exposed a lack of integration in the industry as well as the lack of a national transformation agenda in the sector, says the writer. File picture: Shiraaz Mohamed/EPA
The senseless killing of the 34 mine workers exposed a lack of integration in the industry as well as the lack of a national transformation agenda in the sector, says the writer. File picture: Shiraaz Mohamed/EPA

Marikana nine years on: Stop the politics and and advance the rights of mineworkers

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 16, 2021

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By William Makgabo Mabapa

It is unfortunate that the tragic Marikana massacre which took place on this day nine years ago has over the years been projected to be belonging to a certain trade union, much at the expense of the continuous struggles faced by the entire workforce in the platinum sector.

If we are to carefully reflect on that painful period of August 16, 2012, we will then understand that the workers who were affected cut across trade union allegiance.

Most importantly, the senseless killing of the 34 mine workers exposed a lack of integration in the industry as well as the lack of a national transformation agenda in the sector.

It also cast a spotlight on the failure to give black mineworkers sufficient compensation and accommodation to reclaim their human dignity.

These are political realities beyond trade unions segmentation and all of us should not claim narrow political victories.

Instead, we should champion the unity of workers to advance the aspiration of those who died as well as those who are still alive.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) up to today still maintains that the instability and the strikes that engulfed the platinum belts were politically motivated.

As part of the political plan, the hatred against the union increased and is still being maintained.

NUM campaigned successfully in the 1980s for the end of the job reservation system – a system which sought to secure the needs of white workers and one that ensured they were allocated the best-paying jobs.

It is no secret that by some measure, the South African mining industry has been transformed since the end of apartheid with vast improvements in workers’ rights and issues of health and safety been improved.

The mining industry was one of South Africa’s major employers in the apartheid era.

The industry was highly racist during apartheid and gave the example of the Mines and Works Act, which prohibited black workers from holding high positions.

South Africa possesses a large amount of mineral wealth, including diamonds, gold, ore and platinum, and the apartheid mining system was based on the exportation of these natural resources.

Working conditions in the mines were very poor, and there was an overall lack of welfare for the mineworkers, especially with regards to accommodation.

A migrant worker system existed and a large number of the mineworkers were recruited from countries such as Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi.

South Africa’s mineral wealth was nationalised in 2000, and the government now owns all minerals above and below ground.

But over the years, the NUM has always maintained its diversified approaches when it comes to wage demands.

The approach has always to diversify its demands to be broader than just only being about financial gain.

We have played an important role in bringing about those changes.

However, a myriad of challenges remain, particularly concerning housing. Many mineworkers still languish in shanty towns.

But even then, we have been successful in increasing wages for mineworkers and it should be accepted that these wages still remain very low.

Mineworkers’ wages are still determined by a job-grading system based on the apartheid structure.

Since its establishment in 1982, NUM has fought barriers for employment and attempted to increase mineworkers’ welfare by obtaining training for the workers, and improving the conditions of the mines and the workers’ living accommodation.

Through the advancements made by the NUM, legislation were passed on issues such as labour relations, skills development, equity, health and safety.

These new acts have aided in transforming the mining industry from the poor state it was in during apartheid.

The specific case could be that of the Mines Health and Safety Act.

Thousands of mineworkers died in the mines before, compared to just a few now.

The NUM has pushed for a single bargaining unit, but companies in the platinum industry continue to bargain individually and compete with each other over pay levels.

The employers were not negotiating in good faith and were bargaining outside of the council.

Largely, this arrogance by companies contributed largely to the problems in the platinum industry leading up to the unfortunate killings of 44 mineworkers in and around the platinum belts of Rustenburg, in particular the striking Lonmin workers.

As we commemorate the 9th anniversary of the massacre today, we should all play our role in assisting the children and the relatives of the 34 workers killed and those injured to find a closure.

We should all preach unity and reconciliation of workers irrespective of trade union affiliation.

*Mabapa is NUM Acting-General Secretary. He was first elected an NUM branch chairperson at Anglo American Platinum’s Mogalakwena section in 1994 and became NUM North East regional secretary in 2002 and later served as NUM Deputy General Secretary in 2015.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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