For more than a week our country and people have generally struggled to get to the heart of the crisis at Lonmin. Although they pointed fingers in various directions, much of the blame seemed to settle on two suggestions. First, is the view the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has lost touch with its members and, second, fundamentally the cause is a tussle for turf between the majority NUM and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
But both propositions have been inadequate to offer an explanation why NUM, which continues to grow its membership and stature, could be responsible for the deaths of the same constituency it is successfully recruiting and representing. By way of an analogy, it would be incongruous why a major chain store in the main cities would feud with a spaza shop in a far-flung village.
Throughout its 30 years of existence and struggle in the mining industry, NUM has worked with and continues to accommodate other unions, for example, Solidarity and Uasa. For the record, it has never clashed with them. This is because, first, we believe in unity and solidarity of the working class, as reflected in the adage “the lions which do not hunt together cannot even subdue an ailing buffalo”.
Second, we understand ours must be a union of choice based on the quality service it offers its members and its commitment to organisation and recruitment. As a result, prospecting members would join.
Third, we understand and operate within the hard-won progressive, legislative labour framework, which guarantees worker rights and sets responsibilities. We must also add we have on various occasions in the past 30 years embarked on strikes and led large marches, without any damage to property or life.
The violence – first at Impala, and now in Lonmin – is attributable to those who want to recruit members by holding them to ransom, and subjecting them to threats and intimidation, sometimes death.
This behaviour resonates with much of the recent lawlessness and violent protest gripping the country.
It has become commonplace for supposedly peaceful protests to turn into ugly scenes of violence. For example, citizens with legitimate grievances about a lack of water or safe roads have expressed their dissatisfaction by burning down a school or community centre.
The ugly spectre of political murders, due to differences or attempts to cover up corrupt behaviour, seems to be rearing its head.
We somehow seem accustomed to violence in its various manifestations, assisted by graphic exposés and tacitly approving commentary in our print and electronic media.
Only in almost choreographed instances – dissenting voices are heard. In essence, it is projected it is appropriate to embark on lawless and violent behaviour under the guise of genuine demands. An elitist minority in our society’s tacit condoning subtly legitimises such actions.
So, in this sense – contrary to what would seem a downplaying of the outcry after the violence that led to 34 deaths in a single incident – it decries the silence our society prefers on the gruesome deaths of the six workers, including NUM shop stewards, the two mine security guards and two policemen.
We wish to locate the violence at Marikana and Impala through a holistic prism. The conflict at Impala and Lonmin can also be attributed to employers’ bad faith and partial acts. This is where employers fund rival unionism, enable the undermining of collective-bargaining structures and apply discipline in an inconsistent manner. At Lonmin and Impala, the companies improved wages of certain categories of workers outside bargaining structures and processes, thereby creating unnecessary animosity between workers.
Also, for NUM to hold a meeting it has to apply three days in advance, yet others convene such meetings with impunity and without disciplinary measures imposed on them for failure to adhere to policies and procedures. Furthermore, certain employers have seen it appropriate to keep leaders of rival unions on their payrolls even though these individuals no longer enjoyed bargaining rights or recognition in the company.
Employers have – for all intents and purposes, nationally and internationally– sought to weaken the union by applying these tactics.
These practices in the industry are as old as our relatively young union. In the past, conflict was triggered through what was then termed faction fighting.
The manipulation of mineworkers is a consequence of the squalor and social conditions they find themselves in. Mines are characterised by an ever-increasing number of informal settlements, high unemployment, increasing numbers of working poor, and single-sex hostels where employers opt for living-out allowances instead of proper human settlements and family accommodation. The high levels of indebtedness and credit bureaus’ blacklisting of poor workers create a situation where workers look for short-cuts to get more money.
The apartheid wage gap has exacerbated the situation. It will take an ordinary mineworker more than 300 years to catch up with and accumulate his chief executive’s salary.
Despite this depressing reality, it is erroneous to claim rock-drill operators at Lonmin or Impala earn R4 000. In fact, the inclusive monthly salary package of a rock-drill operator at any of the platinum companies is in the range of R8 000 to R10 000. This fact has been deliberately hidden to whip up emotion among vulnerable workers and in society in general.
We must emphasise, by no means do we suggest mineworkers don’t deserve more. They deserve a decent living wage. Political opportunists are scavenging on poor miners’ carcasses by misrepresenting the truth to score political points.
It is quite disturbing that we witnessed tempers fuelled by infantile politicians who sought cheap publicity over the slain bodies of 44 people whose families are in mourning.
It has become apparent the Marikana and Impala situations are more likely fuelled by politics than genuine worker concerns.
How does it happen that in the wake of a concluded wage agreement one encounters a cry for further wage improvements? Is it coincidence that the modus operandi of the Marikana tragedy and Impala’s six-week strike are the same?
Is it coincidence that those who failed to remain populist in the ruling party are now at the forefront of destabilising the platinum mines?
We believe there is more to what is happening in the platinum industry than meets the eye. We trust the judicial commission of inquiry President Jacob Zuma launched will help to unearth the real force behind the upheavals.
It is completely untrue the workers are responsible.
The Marikana tragedy is regrettable. It is an urgent call to all stakeholders to come together and map the way forward to the benefit of all.
n Baleni is the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers
n We invited AMCU’s Joseph Mathunjwa to give his union’s views on the situation at Marikana, but he declined, saying his union prefers to rather make its presentation to the commission of inquiry.