Mine workers march up to the mountain for prayer after a memorial service held in honor of their fellow dead miners who were killed by police in Marikana mine last week. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Marianne Merten

Political Bureau

AMID much hand-wringing, finger-pointing and buck passing in the wake of the police killing of 34 striking Marikana miners and the wounding of 78 of their colleagues, it remains to be seen whether the lessons of leadership will be learnt.

For some time now, commentators and analysts have pointed to the increasing distance between the grassroots and the governing ANC, despite its rhetoric of being the voice of the poor, marginalised and vulnerable.

Researchers point to the rising number, and increasing violence, of so-called service delivery protests. In “The Smoke that Calls”, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and Wits University recently highlighted protesters’ frustration that those in power, and with the power to bring about change, only heeded the call of burning tyres.

At Marikana, it was not smoke, but blood, which finally brought about a response.

The official refrain that it was a labour dispute had dominated the days leading up to last Thursday’s slaughter, even though tensions had claimed 10 lives by then – and it can be argued the first killing, on August 10, escalated the situation at the Lonmin mine at Rustenburg beyond a labour dispute.

But this remained the official line more than 14 hours after the deadly police shootings. “It is a labour matter,” Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa insisted on SAfm last Friday morning.

Then President Jacob Zuma cut short his visit to the Southern African Development Community summit in Mozambique to travel to Rustenburg. A phalanx of ministers joined him.

And suddenly there was action – social workers assisted anguished relatives, even if distress was heightened when police barred access to the courts for the appearance of 259 arrested miners; extra staff helped identify the dead and issue death certificates; a helpline was established and there was talk of bringing in the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, even though, according to the Labour Department, it had been involved since the end of July.

But it is unsurprising that the flock of ministers who landed at Marikana’s Nkaneng informal settlement five days after the massacre received a far from warm reception: they were reminded that Julius Malema, the expelled ANC Youth League leader, had already been there to listen. And so had a delegation of opposition party leaders on Monday.

On Wednesday it was catch-up time for Zuma: his assurance that there was no conspiracy between his administration and mine management to kill workers may have been heard, but appeared to have done little convincing.

While Saturday’s visit by Malema and his sidekick Floyd Shivambu, the suspended youth league spindoctor, can easily be dismissed as political opportunism, the duo and the opposition have stepped into the vacuum left by the ANC, which controls Rustenburg council in the ANC-led North West, trade unions and mine management.

Meanwhile, tensions and demands for a R12 500 monthly wage have now spread to other mines in the North West platinum belt.

It is a complex situation – even leaving aside the doldrums into which public order policing has sunk due to lack of training and equipment and the “shoot to kill” encouragement from those in power.

In September last year a two-year agreement was signed between Lonmin management, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has full recognition, Solidarity and the United Association of SA, the latter pair, due to their limited recognition, allowed to participate in the collective bargaining process. That agreement runs out only in October 2013.

The Associated Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) now has partial organising rights, but would only be able to push its members’ interests during wage negotiations next year, if allowed on to the bargaining platform.

There is deep unhappiness over last year’s deal, which remains binding on all union members, even if they resign to join another. And this reflects badly on NUM, which is criticised for having lost touch with its members and workers’ struggles.

Rock drillers at Lonmin, who like elsewhere seem to be predominantly the Eastern Cape and Lesotho, and the only ones willing to do this back-breaking work, tell of take-home pay of R4 000 or so. This has been contested by others in the mining sector, who say they earn a gross salary in the region of R11 000 a month and more when bonuses are factored in.

But crucial factors must form part of the calculations. If a miner does not work the required 26 shifts a month, the salary is cut to reflect the number of shifts worked. Migrant miners, who take a salary advance before going home, find it deducted the next month. And the number of garnishee orders is astonishingly high among miners. Thus the debt trap is set.

Also, Lonmin pays a monthly living-out allowance, which many miners take to rent shacks in the sprawling shacklands around the mine rather than having reportedly R1 800 deducted to live in the single-sex, dormitory-style mine hostel. Such apartheid-era practices continue 18 years into democracy despite well-intentioned, but clearly not policed, social labour plans.

Throw into the mix the stark poverty of surrounding communities – often swollen by people desperate to make some form of livelihood, even from prostitution – and platinum’s shine becomes tarnished.

During this week’s parliamentary debate on Marikana it emerged that the national legislature had agreed six years ago to establish a commission on the plight of mineworkers, but had yet to act on it. It is another grim reminder of the failure of leadership.

As the commission of inquiry gets under way it will, no doubt, make a valiant effort to allocate responsibility for the Marikana Massacre despite the overall failure of leadership. Whether words bring about action remains to be seen.

As the nation’s flag flies at half-mast, the outpouring of condolences has come thick and fast. But the top-down show of mourning drowns out the question: Wouldn’t it have been better if the leadership – be it in trade unions, mine management, government, the ANC or elsewhere – had acted to prevent the loss of all 44 lives in the first place? As the Struggle-era lamentation asks: “Senzeni na [What have we done]?”