Marikana. Tragic, but it’s not Sharpeville

2012-08-18 11:59

Ever been down a mine? If you are a mine worker, of course you have. But if you haven’t, here’s how it feels: it’s hot, dark and low-hanging as the mine gets deeper.

It is loud, echoing of the drills and hammers needed to extract the precious minerals from the seams in which nature has embedded them.

South Africa’s mines are particularly deep and difficult to mine, but over centuries, the economy, nay, in fact the country, has been constructed on the bedrock of this wealth.

It is an economy built on this wealth and on the cheap labour of its abundant unskilled black men. South Africa is organised and built around mines and mining towns.

These men (and they are largely still men) have since the 1970s formed themselves into trade unions to make a living, and sometimes even a better life, from the mines.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was the outcome and from the organising skills of that union we have been blessed with leaders who include Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, businesswoman Irene Charnley and the owner of, Marcel Golding, among many, many others.

In more ways than we seek to tally, mining is still South Africa’s bedrock.

So this week, which saw the Marikana massacre, is tragic on so many levels.

The body count from the deadly week is high. Thirty-four men died on Thursday in addition to the 10 who had already been killed since Sunday.

That’s 44 lives lost senselessly; families up-ended, grieving today. Sixty-eight people have been injured. By Friday afternoon, 200 people had been arrested as the police tried to stem the bloodshed and politicians sought to impose order.

President Jacob Zuma flew back to be here with his nation as we grappled with this first major post-apartheid massacre. He should be commended and should work assiduously to assemble a judicial commission of inquiry to help us understand what happened at Marikana.

Only one thing is sure: there is no one answer. Was it about wages? Perhaps. If you go down a mine, you will see that even the R12 500 a month the rock drillers are fighting for seems a pittance for their backbreaking, death-defying work.

Is it about a proud union, the NUM, struggling to deal with its internal contradictions? Perhaps.

The NUM is an excellent union and it bargains in sophisticated and complex ways. But as its leaders have become middle class and professional, has it lost sight of the mining pits? Vavi certainly seems to believe so – he warned as much in his report prepared for next month’s Cosatu congress.

Others, like the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) step in to fill the social distance left by old Cosatu unions.

Is it Sharpeville, redux? Bisho? Boipatong? No, it is not. This is not to say the loss of lives is not as tragic as those massacres that pockmark our history. It is every bit as sad and soul-destroying. But this happened in a democratic state.

And while the nervous and jittery police who pulled the trigger must answer for their actions, it is important to remember that the strikers were armed to the teeth and behaved in a threatening manner.

The lines between innocent and guilty are not drawn as sharply as those at Sharpeville in 1960 or at Soweto in 1976.

What a democratic state should do is call a public or a judicial commission of inquiry so that all the questions may be answered. It is the only way to make sure that it does not happen again.

Here, clever people must piece together for us what happened. In addition, the government needs to carefully read the report by the Bench Marks Foundation to see how mining companies are ignoring or violating the commitments they have made in the mining charter.

The charter is the codification of the deal the government makes with mining companies when they are awarded mining rights.

It seems that these are ignored almost everywhere, but especially in the North West platinum belt.

The government, with a mines inspectorate, must ensure that the charter becomes a living document, or what is its worth?

Whatever answers we get, they will not even start telling the story of what Marikana represents to South Africa and why we have not yet rectified a situation so reminiscent of the past.

This past organised how wealth was created and distributed. It regulated how those unhappy with the exercise of power were treated – often with repression.

Many are calling Marikana a turning point.

We do hope it is a turning point for the better of an industry that is still our bedrock.

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