The recent, often misreported, miners’ protests in Marikana may herald a shift in South African democracy, but the direction of this shift remains uncertain
A month ago, the South African Police Service (SAPS) opened fire on a group of striking miners at the Lonmin platinum mines, killing 34 and injuring 78. The incident outside the town of Marikana is the single most violent and lethal use of force by security forces in the country since 1994, the year South Africa became a democracy. Labour conflict and strikes, especially in the mining sector, are not uncommon, yet what started as a demand for wage increases at Lonmin mines escalated very quickly into a matter of national and international urgency. What is worrying is that stories are emerging with not only conflicting opinions, but also differing facts. Finger-pointing is becoming more prominent than actual reporting.
South Africans are realising how badly the situation has been represented by local and international news publications. It is thanks to a sparse few journalists and publications that the reality of that day is being made public. Journalist Greg Marinovich examined the scene at Marikana to find that the majority of the victims were shot at very close range, or crushed by heavy police vehicles. Victims were chased and cornered, and instead of being arrested, were killed. Many victims were, quite literally, hunted down. This is not the kind of police behaviour that one expects in a country with such a progressive Bill of Rights. This is information that must be known.
Unlike what many people believe, the mining tragedy did not just appear out of the blue. Strikes are a regular occurrence and although Union Management Engagement structures within companies should be the forum for discussing and negotiating grievances they do not function as they should, resulting in employees resorting to strikes to reach a resolution. Prior to the shooting on 16 August, unrest was rife and deaths had been recorded – including two policemen who were brutally attacked. Nobody’s hands are clean.
Unexpectedly, instead of the expected apology and excuses for the actions of the SAPS, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) charged the miners, not the police, with murder, using a controversial law principle. The common purpose liability principle allows the unlawful act of one member in a crowd to be imputed upon other members in that crowd. The charges have since been dropped but it is frightening to realise that it could very well have been used.
Mining in South Africa, especially platinum mining, brings in a huge percentage of the country’s wealth and well over 100,000 workers are employed in the mines. Unemployment statistics at the moment are about 25 per cent. Couple that with terrible illiteracy rates, huge problems in the education system and non-existent unemployment benefits it becomes clear that for an uneducated and largely illiterate person, making any salary at all is a remarkable feat.
Many of the miners are migrant workers and come from much poorer provinces such as the Eastern Cape. Of those people, it’s safe to say that the large majority are supporting their extended families with the money that they make at the mines. In fact, Lonmin’s official statement is that from the 40,000 salaries that are paid each month, 150,000 people are supported.
The work is not easy and conditions are not ideal, but there are few fatalities and conditions are improving. The roughly R4,500 (£340) that miners take away each month exclude their board and lodging, medical aid and pension funds, which are paid for by Lonmin. The total value of their monthly income is about R10,500 (£790), excluding the added cash incentives that rock drill operators can make, which averages R2,000 (£150). No, it is not a lot of money, especially for a job that requires such intense physical exertion, but it is a lot more than the minimum wage (about R8/60p per hour or R1,280/£95 per month) and definitely more than an uneducated person can earn anywhere else in the country. Many young South Africans with post-graduate tertiary degrees can’t expect to earn that amount.
Something that has been largely neglected is the fact that many of the strikers aren’t employees of Lonmin but contract workers. Even if the company has settled on a wage agreement, it doesn’t yet mean that the contract workers will get that salary. It is easy to believe that miners are exploited. Like any employee of a huge corporation, they are – but not necessarily to the extent we, and perhaps even they, are being led to believe. It is far easier to believe that miners are exploited when their spokesperson is one who tends to omit all the facts. Workers are often exploited, but in this case, by the very hand that claims to feed them. Intimidation of workers is incredibly high, and people are generally terrified.
The unions play a significant role in the mining sector in South Africa. The National Union of Mineworker (NUM) have been working with mining companies like Lonmin for years and have built a healthy give-and-take relationship with management. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) was originally formed as a breakaway faction of NUM. AMCU instigated a lot of the violence by making unrealistic promises and playing on social issues amongst the miners. An example of this is the fact that AMCU involved traditional healers, when the miners met to face the police, who gave the men muti (traditional medicine) that may have affected their behaviour.
South Africa is not a police state. This needs to be repeated. But without enlightened media coverage, it looks no better than a violent oligarchy; what is the use of it being one thing on paper, and another in reality? To quote George Orwell, “the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
International publications and news platforms are using phrases that only deepen the negative racial dialogue that is already so prevalent when South Africa is discussed. If the negative international reporting wasn’t damaging enough already, a firebrand South African politician, Julius Malema, has been stirring the pot further. The expelled ANC youth leader arrived quickly on the unsettled scene in Marikana, inciting more violence. Malema is openly calling for workers to make the mines ungovernable until the mines themselves become nationalised.
Since 1994, when the ANC won the first democratic election in South Africa, the party has received overwhelming support. Zuma’s position in the ANC was reached thanks to the ANC Youth League and Julius Malema’s support. Now, Malema has become one of Zuma’s most vocal critics. Perhaps the days of unquestioning support for the ANC are over. The ANC today is a far cry from what it stood for 18 years ago and, in order for the country’s progressive constitution to be fully realised, South African leaders need to recognise that their power is being scrutinised. There have been many instances throughout the current strikes when the government should have done something, yet didn’t.
Is it so easy to discard South Africa into the pile of ‘failed African democracies’? Not yet, but the future is uncertain. In a country with a constitution that was created with awareness of the injustices of the past, how can such an outrageous incident even be possible?
As awful as the deaths at Marikana were, it is quite clear that this was not a race-inspired incident. Yes, people argue that everything in South Africa is race-inspired; after all, wounds do not heal simply. But to merely put South Africa back in the ‘misguided racists’ box is a huge mistake. A date that all South Africans commemorate is the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, where 69 black protesters were killed by the SAPS during the Apartheid regime. Today, the date is recognised across the country as a celebration of our democratic government enforcing equal human rights.
Perhaps in years to come, people will see 2012 as a turning point for South African democracy. With such a devastating incident still fresh in our minds, one can only hope. The question is – which way will it turn?
Image from: http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/17/world/africa/marikana-south-africa-mine-shootings/index.html?iref=allsearch
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