TIME FOR CHANGE: Striking platinum mineworkers gather for a report back on negotiations at Lonmins Marikana mine in North West this week. Unions representing workers need to look again at their commitment to finding solutions for their members, and companies need to care about and act on workers concerns, says the writer. 	Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters
TIME FOR CHANGE: Striking platinum mineworkers gather for a report back on negotiations at Lonmins Marikana mine in North West this week. Unions representing workers need to look again at their commitment to finding solutions for their members, and companies need to care about and act on workers concerns, says the writer. Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters
Emma Mashinini
Emma Mashinini

I am advanced in my years, I am not actively involved in the work of organising labour within the trade union movement any longer, but I do know what is right and what is wrong.

What happened on August 16 is a dark chapter in the history of our nation’s democratic history, and shame has descended on all sides of this tale.

As I mentioned earlier, I do not have the strength to take centre stage in workers’ issues any more; my gauntlet and torch have been passed on to a younger generation. So much of what I have seen and heard about the Marikana tragedy has reached me via TV and newspapers.

I did not initially know that that there was an opposing, alternative union to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at our platinum belt in North West.

The question that arises in my mind is: “Why do workers seek the representation of a rival union when NUM, arguably one of the most powerful unions in SA, with a long history in activism and fighting for labour rights, is at Marikana and has the threshold and mandate to negotiate on behalf of workers?”

We always had rival unions in my day, but we did not have this disappointing level of violence. Why do people have to die when we are empowered on both sides?

We are empowered today, we are able to negotiate freely at the highest political level and we can take legal industrial action. The unions today, unlike under apartheid, have a legitimate voice in the politics of SA. It is therefore inexcusable that death, especially the casualties of Marikana, is still part of labour disputes under a democratic SA.

My life and those of my generation of freedom fighters were forfeit so that nobody under this dispensation, that we fought so hard for, had to lose their lives.

The actions of the police need to be scrutinised. They could have used rubber bullets, water cannons, alternative means of crowd control, means that would have seen fewer people die.

They acted violently, exasperating rather than calming the rage of workers who are angry – angry at their poor living conditions and incomes. As for the workers, they themselves were not innocent, they went around in the week preceding the incident dubbed the “Marikana Massacre” and killed their comrades, fellow workers who only wished to provide for their families, members of the police service and security officials, people who are simply workers themselves.

Our political leadership should have intervened; they needed to keep emotions calm. The police should have been sent in with one mandate – to maintain peace and minimise casualties.

It is the state that should be at the forefront of leading by example; it is the state that should have the utmost respect for human life and dignity.

Lonmin, the company at the centre of the conflict, has remained locked away in their comfortable ivory towers, silent on the casualties of the weeks that passed.

All that they could comment on was the fact that production time is lost, that workers, mourning the deaths of their friends and colleagues, angry at their circumstances, must return to work or face disciplinary action and dismissal.

Companies need to realise that the conditions that their workers live under is a reflection on them, an indication of the value they attach to the blood, sweat, tears and years of those who serve to bolster their profits. The workers are the people who descend into the depths of Earth’s belly to extract the riches that pay shareholders, CEOs and management.

Any company operating within this country with its high levels of economic inequality needs to address the concerns of these workers. They need to at least respond to the concerns of their workers if they wish to positively add to this country in building the unity that is so needed, now more than ever.

Silence in the wake of a tragedy of this nature and the events leading up to it cannot be tolerated under any circumstances as the impression is given that big business is here to take as much as possible and give back very little – if not nothing at all – in building this nation.

NUM needs to ask serious introspective questions as to why they are losing members to new emerging unions. I remember the powerful force NUM was when we launched Cosatu. It had a strong leadership, people who educated the workers on labour law. NUM wielded a powerful mandate and ability to negotiate on behalf of its members and it was a force to be reckoned with.

Why workers seek out other unions to represent them speaks to the leadership quality and the benefits that workers are failing to receive from their unions.

Some members feel that the political position that the unions occupy now, rather than strengthening their bargaining power, has rather stifled it: it has become a damaging distraction. Workers feel that they are not adequately represented and that their union leadership is preoccupied with crafting political careers rather than fighting for their rights.

The coming 11th annual Cosatu conference, planned for next month, will have to dig deep and really view the position of trade unions affiliated with Cosatu. Do these unions effectively serve their members on the shop floor? This would be the real question and the conference should not devolve into a charade that focuses on the leadership battles that will accompany the ANC’s elective conference to be held in December at Mangaung.

Workers need less politicking, more representation, and unions that hold their interests at heart.

When I stood outside factory gates, recruiting workers to join our unions, I had to give them a reason to join; they needed to feel that we would give them real protection as they paid membership fees from their modest wages.

We needed to ensure that they saw real value in affiliating themselves with us and we needed to continuously deliver on that expectation. The Cosatu conference needs to address this and there is a dire need for a return to basics.

As for the judicial commission of inquiry launched by President Jacob Zuma, I believe that it is of no solace to the lives lost. It may answer factual questions as to what and why 44 lives were lost at Marikana; it may bring perpetrators and agitators to justice; but it will not replace the lives of breadwinners lost.

It means nothing to the people: how can it bring closure to the family members who have lost their loved ones?

I read in a newspaper about a mother who herself died upon hearing about her son’s death at Marikana. What difference does a judicial commission of inquiry make to her and those like her?

The future of trade unions is dependent on education and a return to the original mandate workers gave them.

Things are so different now as opposed to when I was a union organiser.

Under apartheid deaths would be caused due to the action of the police, not between rival unions. Unions existed for the sole purpose of representing the workforce and positions of leadership were reserved for those who wished to serve the masses rather than themselves.

I never thought I would see what I fought so hard not to see, happen under democracy. This cannot and should not happen again.