The roots of the tragic shooting of mineworkers by police at the Lonmin platinum mine in North West last week can be traced all the way back to the power struggles starting around 2007, in the African National Congress alliance. But that is just one aspect of a hugely complicated issue. Viewed holistically, the tragedy raises many disturbing questions with serious implications for South Africa across a wide front.
It is these questions, with direct implications for the Zuma administration and alliance politics, the mining industry and the socio-economic conditions of its workers, labour relations and labour legislation, national security and state intelligence, among others, that the commission of enquiry (to be appointed by President Jacob Zuma) will need to try and answer.
It will be a mammoth task, cutting deeply into the very fibre of present day South Africa on many levels. The task will be immensely complicated as the blame game escalates, as various role-players try to protect themselves, as emotions and misinformation cloud the real picture, and as the political vultures descend to further their own agendas.
Much of this had already started within hours of the tragedy.
Exclusion from bargaining process
The problems at Lonmin mine started when some 3 000 workers – mostly rock drillers, performing the hardest, most dangerous work underground – demanded through a new, independent union operating outside the official bargaining process , that their wages be increased from the paltry R4 000 they take home per month to R12 500. In the aftermath more than 50 people had died, and scores more were injured. (Also see “The politics behind Lomin”)
The majority recognition under current labour legislation of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), an affiliate of the ANC-allied Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), came under threat at various platinum mines from the new independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) which seeks recognition and access to the official bargaining process.
AMCU, this weekend, dismissed reports that it was not a recognised union at the mine, claiming it represents 7 000 workers there. Nonetheless, as far as could be established, AMCU is not officially recognised by the mine.
If so, its exclusion from the legal bargaining process left the 3 000 illegally striking, disgruntled rock drillers, the lifeblood of any mine, literally between a rock and hard place.
There certainly seemed to be no system in place that could defuse a situation that in preceding weeks had been growing more explosive by the day.
It is a situation that, by all accounts, both NUM and the management of the reportedly struggling mine had been quietly exploiting. The latter seems to have benefitted from the current labour legislation and NUM’s protection of its dominance, which may have provided it with a way out of having to negotiate and pay the higher wages demanded by AMCU. Instead management issued an ultimatum: return to work or be fired. There were no negotiations.
This ultimatum, which, most surprisingly, was extended to Monday this week even after Thursday’s bloodbath, may have been the flame that ultimately lit the fuse.
Role of management
The mine’s management reportedly earlier agreed to negotiate with these workers, but then apparently reneged. Management also apparently did nothing to facilitate the inclusion of these workers in the officially recognised bargaining process or to try and facilitate communication between the rival unions.
Instead, these workers - many of whom live in squalid conditions in a nearby shack settlement – continue to be poorly paid, while the best management seemed able to offer were the arguably ill-considered ultimatums.
After the tragedy Cyril Ramaphosa, an ANC national executive committee, who sits on the Lonmin board by virtue of his own company’s shareholding in Lonmin offered R2 million towards the funerals of those killed last week. Ramaphosa, ironically, is a former general secretary of NUM.
Lonmin said it would take care of the future education needs of the children of the deceased workers.
However, the question that many may certainly be asking is why did some of this generosity not show itself prior to the deaths by addressing at least part of the workers’ demands for better remuneration?
The mine management has also been quick to claim good relations with local communities in the area, and allegedly making sterling contributions to education and health services in these communities. However, the question remains why were so many of the affected workers were living in squalid conditions in shacks in an informal settlement?
While under the apartheid system, migrant workers were accommodated without their families in mine hostels, in post-South Africa many now relocate from far away with their families. Why are they not provided with decent family accommodation? Should politicians, instead of bun-fights around issues such as nationalisation, not instead be looking at legislation that could force mines to house their workers properly? It will make a practical and immediately material difference to the lives of these workers. In former years mines provided workers with entire housing villages; why is this apparently no longer the case?
Clearly the role that the mine’s management and owners played in bringing about this tragedy deserves thorough investigation by the promised commission of inquiry.
In the ensuing violence some 3 000 angry workers, heavily armed with pangas and knob-kieries and, police claim, some firearms, murdered two mine security officials, other mine workers, and two policemen who had approached them in good faith. Police attempts to control the crowd through the use of water cannons and stun grenades were followed by the opening of fire with live ammunition on the workers. It left 34 workers dead and 78 injured.
According to reports, the police last Thursday ignored their own top-level directive, issued in December, not to use live ammunition and to only use rubber bullets as a very last resort in unrestful situations. Also, it would appear standard crowd-control procedures were not followed. Two weeks ago Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa also requested police to use only water cannons against protesters.
Workers prepared for battle
Be that as it may, national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega says she gave the order to shoot and will defend it.
Dr Johan Burger, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies supports that decision. It was a ‘war zone’ in which water cannons and rubber bullets were totally inadequate. Police were vastly outnumbered by armed men who attacked them first, he told Rapport newspaper.
He says, the fact that the police’s highly trained specialist national intervention unit was deployed at the scene shows that police had earlier assessed that normal procedures would not be sufficient. The standard unrest control procedures thus did not apply.
Evidence has also emerged that some of the striking workers had been preparing for battle many days before the tragedy through the use of a “medicine man” that used secret rituals and “magic” potions on them.
In almost military style, a group of several hundred workers armed to the teeth with apparently newly-made pangas, spears, clubs and sharpened steel rods, commanded by a tall man with obvious authority according to eye witness accounts, were strategically positioned and clearly controlled in their actions.
A serious question that arises is whether the intelligence services were again caught napping as happened when xenophobic violence broke out in South Africa a few years ago?
Had there been sufficient intelligence, could the authorities not have approached the situation differently to avoid this bloodbath?
In this context a number of questions arise, which will have to be answered by the commission of inquiry.
Exactly why did the police use live ammunition? Were the police deployed at the scene properly and adequately trained, equipped and commanded? Did they react in panic and in contravention of standard orders and procedures?
And why we were the workers, preparing for battle, armed with apparently newly-made weapons, and organised along military lines? Were the workers being manipulated by unscrupulous union organisers?
AMCU has been gaining popularity at mines across the platinum belt. Earlier this year its members were involved in similar violence, albeit on a lesser scale, at Impala Platinum, causing the death of several people. Yet police and national intelligence agencies seem to have failed to gather intelligence after that incident to prevent a recurrence.
If it is to be truly holistic and uncover the full truth, the commission of enquiry will need the widest possible mandate and tackle its task with out fear or favour.
Stef Terblanche and Piet Coetzer