Impasse far from over

2012-09-19 12:30

There’s a great risk in the hasty celebration of the wage deal reached between representatives of the miners and the management of the Lonmin mine.

The Haunted House

Six weeks ago, when the strike broke out, it was clear that the Lonmin mine tragedy would be the poster-child of South Africa’s deeply haunted mining sector.

Characterized by gross inequality and a deep disregard for it’s own hardworking employees; the mining sector is indeed one of South Africa’s many haunted houses.

Like any haunted house, the salient features of the ghost are impossible to ignore. No house wants to be haunted, and while we may attempt to get rid of our ghosts; doing so with a little measure of reflection and tainted perspective is ultimately more frightening in the end.

The wage deal (to it’s own ends) represents an attempt for redemption. The management of the mine showed very little courage or leadership during the tragedy, the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM) failed the workers by their present absence and the state showed us (through the police primarily) that it is deeply deluded in the way it handles contentious issues in South African society.

So, for the house to rid itself of the ghost, it decided to reach a settlement not far from the miners’ expectations; the now-famed 22% increase and a R 2000 incentive for the returning workers.

Truce much?

 The Uncanny

The thoughtless observation of Marikana as an event, rather than a place of divergence and justified anger, is the main reason why some us might view the wage deal as a victory.

It isn't.

In real terms, the wage deal is a temporary antidote to a larger problem.

With the varying interpretations and incisive commentary on Marikana and the mining sector widely, the common place for us to start was the all-too-familiar South African phenomenon of a wage dispute gone bad

Few of us asked the deeper questions. We didn’t dare to think, that perhaps this moment of great tragedy, shock and anger was about something more profound than wages.

Few of us will realize that the battle at Marikana was a battle for dignity. The scores of hardworking men killed, the policemen killed and the members of the community injured are fatalities in this battle. Their lives weren't spared for a 22% increase (or even the R 12500 the miners demanded).

Their dignity hasn’t been reclaimed. It will take much more than the wage deal to do this.

The Aftermath

Will the state of affairs change for the workers in the aftermath of the wage deal?

It depends.

We have learned generous lessons on numerous issues over the past month and a half. We have learned that workers’ unions are unable to educate, mobilize and provide sound guidance for their members in trying times.

We have learned that the bigwigs running the show are either unaware or too preoccupied to deal with the issues their employees face.

There are many more lessons involving more role players.

The point is, for us to move on to a more brighter path we should not to delude ourselves into thinking that the impasse is over.

Engaging the ghost

What needs to be done is difficult, but possible.

The mining sector and many other sectors in South Africa’s economy need to deal with the persisting dangerous motifs of the apartheid South Africa. The migrant labour system prevalent in the mining sector is a good place to start. It cheapens the value of human capital, destructs the family structure and undermines the autonomy of any worker.

The harsh conditions many migrant workers call home need to be dealt with. The ties between the unions and the workers need to be revisited. Worker-education and mobilization can happen effectively devoid from violence and populism.

More importantly, all of us should dig deeper. The familiar-sight of protest and violence in our communities is not as lucid as we make it out to be.

Every protest and every strike (violent and non-violent) signifies a continuing struggle for dignity and the cry to be heard.

The current socio-economic set-up dehumanizes many of us daily. This is where the battle lies. Our lessons from Marikana aren't derived from the workers returning to work on Thursday, but the blood of those who fell.

Their blood represents an ongoing fight for decency, accord, and a more humane country.

Sibusiso Tshabalala is a 3rd year law student at the University of the Free State. He is one of Google’s International Top 10 Young Minds for 2012 and was listed as one of South Africa’s Top 200 Young South Africans by the Mail and Guardian in 2012.

Follow him on Twitter: @sbutshabs

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