PARTY POLITICS: Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu did not show the necessary leadership when Marikana erupted, says the writer. Photo: Leon Nicholas

IT had to come to a head. Something had to give and, hopefully, from the painful chapter being opened so early in the new year, we’ll learn to mature early. There’s no other choice.

The panic over Anglo American Platinum’s plans to retrench 14 000 workers has its genesis in the events of last year.

Further afield, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said last week that the euro area possibly could start seeing growth at the end of the year but, for the most part, it would still be dealing with recession and too much debt. That, of course, has a direct bearing on how our mines and manufacturing firms perform.

The Kagiso Purchasing Managers’ Index, which showed this week that manufacturing slowed down last month, points to a larger problem in our country. Manufacturing has slowed down. The demand for platinum and other precious metals is slowing. The agricultural sector, in the Western Cape at least, is under siege. As companies try to stay afloat, the workers will be squeezed. That is just how companies work – tantrums or no tantrums from ministers or unionists. Capitalism with a heart is a fallacy.

The National Union of Mineworkers came under siege from an upstart called the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Amcu used underhanded means, embarking on an unprotected strike and, importantly, securing significant (though insufficient) salary hikes. It was bound to, and did, make NUM envious. So the biggest Cosatu union also took out the whip, negotiating salaries outside the recognised bargaining system. Wildcat strikes ensued, causing much damage in the process.

We all knew it would come to this. That there’d be tears and storms of pathos. We would be told how beholden to loan sharks the miners are; how many kids they have. And that mine owners, the faces of monopoly capital, should have hearts.

The thing is, when this fairly predictable crisis was in gestation, very few cared about the implications. The future appeared too distant – too distant even for someone whose job requires strategic thinking like Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu. She is now, rather belatedly, throwing her toys out the cot over the planned retrenchments. When she needed to intervene when the first 10 workers were killed in Marikana, she behaved in the most partisan manner, prompting Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota to tell her in Parliament later that she must represent all workers affected by violence in mines. She went to Marikana and met management and her comrades in NUM and very arrogantly asked who Amcu was. It was an unrecognised union unworthy of her attention – despite being at the centre of the mayhem. She played party politics when the occasion required her to see the bigger picture and help avoid the situation we now find ourselves in.

Amcu, too, failed to see the bigger picture, being preoccupied with a desire to appear more militant than NUM, to convince workers that they were better off with Amcu than with a sweetheart union like NUM. This came at a cost. People died. Now people might lose their jobs – because Amcu and NUM’s battles took centre stage, instead of the workers’ welfare.

NUM and Cosatu’s reaction to Amcu’s underhanded victory was even more damaging. Wildcat strikes soon spread to AngloGold Ashanti, to Samancor’s Western Chrome Mines and to Gold Fields KTC West, among others. It was high noon and workers were about to rake it in. If Lonmin workers got their R12 500, so should everybody. What companies could afford did not matter. It was instant justice. The mining sector has exploited workers for years. Payback had to come – at some point. What the union leaders did not do, which they ought to have, was urge maturity – to find a way of ensuring justice without leaving workers exposed to retrenchments, as they are now. We needed, then, union leaders who did not, like Shabangu, think the future was still too far off.

But what we had were workers’ representatives in a bind. Arguing against the wildcat strikes would have meant they did not want workers to improve their lot. That would have been a difficult proposition. But isn’t that what leadership is about?

Yet, the leaders had a responsibility to improve workers’ lot without endangering their jobs.

The capitalists of Amplats and Lonmin, too, are far from blameless. They should not have entertained salary talks outside of agreed structures to start with.

The truth, though, is that we are in this no-win situation because of a dearth in leadership and that workers, in general, find the fruits of liberation elusive. Their patience is running out. Violent protests appear a certainty of our times. They need proper leadership to secure better deals for themselves.

Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi was right when he told delegates at their congress last year: “Different lifestyles and material realities are creating a leadership that is not fully in tune with what members are facing. Perceptions in the trade union survey among some workers (are) of growing corruption among union leaders, including the sense that union leaders are being co-opted and selling them (workers) out.”

A decision to retrench 14 000 workers will affect many souls. No matter what Shabangu or the unions say, companies will always adjust their operations according to their balance sheets viewed against market conditions. The only way Shabangu and the unionists can have a say is if they can reasonably subsidise operations – a suggestion that is not even on the table.

For ordinary workers, it is about the fruits of liberation. These other things about the euro’s indebtedness or balance sheets necessitating retrenchments appear to be cover for vengeful monopoly capitalists who are angry that they secured decent increases last year.

Take a look at the farmworkers of the Western Cape, throwing stones at police armed with guns. With each stone they throw, they hope to get closer to a deal that will restore dignity in their lives.

Look at workers at the multibillion-rand Medupi power station. They downed tools, barricaded roads and unleashed violence against those who were going to work, forcing Eskom to tell workers not to report for work – because workers are crying out for a piece of the pie. This makes them vulnerable to the hawks in Amcu, who promise quick fixes, and the vultures in Cosatu, who make it difficult to see the difference between the two.

Those who are lucky to find work earn peanuts. Those who are unemployed have it so bad that they yearn for the peanuts despised by workers. The mix is toxic. How long, they wonder, must they live in hope that they, too, will eventually enjoy the fruits of liberation? Was 1994 a Pyrrhic victory?