The dust has yet to clear

2013-08-16 00:00

DUST. Police running forward, guns held high, the stutter of shots. Shouts. Silence. Bodies. Dust. The images captured on film a year ago today, of what has come to be known as the Marikana massacre, have entered the nation’s visual memory, alongside those of Sharpeville 1960 and Soweto 1976.

The visual dynamics are uncannily similar: police versus protesters. Only this time, the police are the same colour as the protesters.

Thirty four people were killed on August 16 last year; 10 others were killed in the preceding week. The Farlam commission is probing the deaths of all 44 people killed during last August’s strike-fuelled unrest.

The origins of the Marikana massacre began with a wildcat strike at a mine owned by Lonmin in the Marikana area near Rustenberg, in the platinum belt of North West Province.

The strike began on August 10 when 3 000 workers downed tools after Lonmin management failed to show for a meeting to discuss the workers’ demand for a R12 500 pay rise, in some cases almost a third of their then salaries.

On one level, the strike was about a pay rise, but it also reflected tensions between two unions the National Union of Mineworkers (Num) and its rival on the rise, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

Num was regarded as being cosy with both management and government, a concern reflected in the union losing its organisational rights at the mine after its membership dropped from 66% to 49%.

Another element was economic, in the shape of financial debt. Most of the miners’ salaries were diverted at source via garnishing orders.

“If someone gets R9 000, they are probably taking home R2 000 or R3 000 … because the rest is going on debt servicing,” said Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies last October, when commenting on micro-lender abuse in the Marikana area.

If you are earning next to nothing, what have you got to lose by striking?

The violence began on August 11, when two Num strikers marching on the Num offices were killed by gunshots fired by Num leaders. In the days that followed, prior to August 16, it is estimated that at least four miners, two police officers and two security guards were killed.

From the first day of the strike, thousands of striking miners took to a nearby hill, where they kept vigil. On the afternoon of August 16, during an attempt to dislodge them from the hill, 34 miners were killed when police opened fire. At least 78 miners were wounded.

The incident constituted the single most lethal use of force by South African security forces against South African civilians since the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.

The strike and the subsequent massacre saw a wave of strikes hit the mining sector. It is estimated that by October 2012, about 75 000 miners were on strike at various gold and platinum mines.

Between September and October, AMCU’s membership increased to almost 14 000, while Num’s dropped to 6 500.

Initially, 270 arrested miners were charged with “public violence”. There was a public outcry when this charge was changed to murder, on the basis of “common purpose”, despite the police having shot them.

On September 2, the National Prosecuting Authority dropped the murder charges and the miners were subsequently released.

Meanwhile, the strike continued and mediation began. An agreement was reached on September 20. The salaries of miners working at the lowest levels were increased to R9 611, from the previous R8 164; winch operators received R9 883, up from R8 931; rock drill operators R11 078, from R9 063, and production team leaders R13 022, from R11 818. The strikers returned to work on September 20.

A commission of inquiry was appointed by President Jacob Zuma on August 23 and was mandated “to investigate matters of public, national and international concern arising out of the tragic incidents at the Lonmin Mine in Marikana, in the North West Province which took place on about Saturday, August 11 to Thursday, August 16, 2012”.

Retired judge Ian Gordon Farlam was appointed chairperson of the commission.

The commission was expected to do its job within four months, but issues around translation, the huge number of witnesses and problems with funding, delayed matters, so far resulting in two extensions. Another extension is likely when the current October deadline is reached.

Farlam was reported on Wednesday as saying that a decision on funding for the lawyers representing the injured and arrested miners “will definitely be made by the end of the week”.

On the union front, Num vacated its offices at Marikana Mine last month, after losing a court battle to stop Lonmin from terminating its recognition agreement.

On Wednesday, Lonmin signed a recognition agreement with Amcu. But tensions are still high among workers and their unions at the mines. It is estimated that at least 12 people linked to Lonmin’s Marikana Mine have been killed over the past year, eight of them prominent union members, according to an Agence France-Presse tally.

The post-Marikana fallout has seen Africa’s wealthiest economy teeter, with the rand falling 15% against the dollar, and the country penalised with three sovereign credit downgrades.

Investor confidence has been shaken badly.

“A year on and no lessons learnt,” says Geoff Blount, CEO of Cannon Asset Managers.

“Whether in labour, government or business, no one has learnt a lesson. And given current conditions, the indications are that something like Marikana is repeatable.

“We are seeing increasing rivalry and dangerous brinkmanship between the two unions,” says Blount, “who appeal to their memberships with increasingly irrational wage demands.

“They have lost touch with the economic reality — half of South Africa’s gold mines and more than half of the country’s platinum shafts are running at a loss.

“The government has been slow to learn; it has not been decisive on labour issues and government policies are inconsistent.”

Nor has business learnt a lesson. “Industry should have played it better,” says Blount.

“Industry has tolerated wildcat strikes. They shouldn’t have just acquiesced — Lonmin gave in with a massive increase, which set a bad precedent for the industry.

“The mining industry, which is the economic backbone of this country, is in severe crisis,” says Blount, adding that there is a need for collective initiative to solve this. “But there is a collective myopia across all sectors.”

A year on, we have video footage — endlessly replayed on television — photographs, police accounts, witness and journalist accounts, but the nation is no nearer a clear exposition of the events that played out last August 16, let alone any findings that would lead to prosecution.

The dust raised at Marikana has yet to clear.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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