Marikana: a story about unresponsive leadership

Eusebius McKaiser

There is an incredibly basic but crucial leadership lesson to be learnt from the Marikana disaster. It is this: unresponsive leadership will not be tolerated forever. The Congress of South African Trade Unions released a statement “urg(ing) all the workers who have left the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to return”.

This “urge” is fascinating. The union leaders view these workers as delinquents; as naughty children who ran away from home and who should return if they know what’s good for them.

Even last night on my radio show, Talk At Nine, general secretary of NUM, Frans Baleni, argued that the wage deal that had been struck at Marikana set a bad precedent in the sense that workers have successfully tried their luck outside the legal structures for negotiating wage increases. He fears they will inspire such action in other parts of the economy. He might be right. But these statements from NUM and Cosatu miss a more crucial point.  

Failing to see what happened

Neither Baleni nor Zwelinzima Vavi is asking the right questions. The question is not whether it is a bad thing that illegal actions should lead to a 22% wage increase. Obviously destruction of property, the use of intimidation against fellow workers and illegal bargaining processes are bad for us. Baleni and Vavi should ask, “Why are some workers abandoning us? Why did many workers choose to represent themselves in wage negotiations?”

They are failing to see what happened at Marikana in an honest light: a vote of no confidence in union leadership. If NUM and Cosatu convince themselves that Marikana is not an indictment of their leadership then more members might rethink their membership of the unions.

By deciding to negotiate for themselves, workers are clearly expressing dissatisfaction with the union leadership’s capacity for successfully negotiating on their behalf. They have lost faith in the union leadership. Why else would you not allow the regular processes to play out? When I put this issue to Baleni on my radio show yesterday, he simply said that workers opted out of the usual processes because they – the workers at Marikana – have been inspired by the successful use of illegal strikes at other mines previously.

This retort from Baleni is disingenuous in two ways. Firstly, as was pointed out by a mineworker who called in, the mineworkers did not resort to illegal activity from the outset. If Baleni’s hypothesis is true, then illegal activity would have been chosen from the start. It wasn’t. Rather, workers started losing confidence when the normal processes did not bring about the desired outcomes for them. This means it is hasty pop psychologising on NUM’s part to simply dismiss the workers as engaging in copycat anti-social behaviour. It is a desperate attempt to avoid introspecting about the quality of union leadership at Marikana.

And that is the second problem with Baleni’s retort. It is a lost opportunity to reflect on what NUM could have done differently from a leadership viewpoint. If you do not think you failed, then you will never reflect on what leadership lessons to learn from a crisis. And the stubbornness on Baleni’s part to even think of the possibility that NUM’s leadership was found wanting, is itself reason to predict that the relationship between workers and union leadership, going forward, will remain tense.

We want responsive leadership

This is disappointing. Because in a country with a history of worker abuse, and deep inequalities within sectors like mining, union leadership ought to be reliable, trusted and effective so as to help us along on the slow journey to a more just economy. But the refusal to explicitly acknowledge union leadership shortcomings at Marikana means that NUM, and Cosatu, will struggle to easily repair the reputational damage they now suffer among some workers.

But there is, in a somewhat perverse way, something good here for society at large. If you are a politician in government, or a public servant even, you had better realise that those you represent or serve want you to respond to their needs. They do not want leaders and public servants who are remote and unconnected to their interests.

They – we – want responsive leadership: leadership that honestly engages workers, and citizens; and who respond to and faithfully represents their interests. Marikana will come to be a textbook case study in the failure of responsive leadership. Not just on the part of labour union leaders, but the politicians also, and the callously silent corporates.

This more general failure to show responsiveness in leadership was most shockingly captured in the reaction of North West Premier, Thandi Modise, when I put it to her that she had shown a failure in leadership by not even visiting the victims of the Marikana massacre. Her response? “Give me a break!” It is workers and citizens who need a break from unresponsive leadership.

- McKaiser’s book A Bantu in my Bathroom is now available from all leading bookstores. Ebooks can be bought from and epub and pdf versions can be bought on-line from Exclusives Books and

- Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics. Follow @eusebius on Twitter.

Send your comments to Eusebius

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