Marikana Commission: the expensive and tedious to charade find a fall girl!

2015-06-26 10:35

As a mental exercise, take your mind back to the Soweto Youth Uprising. Imagine for a minute that all the apartheid security officers who murdered over a thousand students were prosecuted but the apartheid system remained intact. Surely no one would consider that to constitute justice.

The Soweto class of 1976 may have been killed by brainwashed trigger-happy police officers; however, the true cause of their merciless massacre was the apartheid system and its machinery of race-based oppression. We must take a similar approach to the Marikana massacre.

The question “who should be liable for the death of 44 people at Marikana” places the cart before the horse. It is a complete copout. The more pointed and necessary question is “what should constitute justice for workers and their families”. We avoid this question because it requires us to reflect on the failings of our democracy and to confront the farce that is the “new South Africa”.

Justice, put simply, means giving to each what is due. A system that institutionalises cheap labour and deprives workers of fair compensation for their work is unjust. Such a system has persisted in South Africa since Jan van Riebeeck berthed three ships at the Cape of Good Hope.

The injustice that culminated in an apartheid-style massacre in a democratic South Africa has complex legal, political and economic causes. To advance justice and pay our dues to dead, injured and jailed workers and their families, we must address these causes.

First, laws institutionalise the exploitation of workers.

Martin Legassick, Harold Wolpe and most recently Thomas Piketty have authored seminal texts on the origins of worker exploitation in the mining industry. Their work recognises that apartheid was constructed, in large part, to foster a transition from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist society by providing, essentially, a political system to guarantee cheap labour. Bantu Education, Bantu Homelands, Pass Laws, among other things, were moving parts of political and economic systems designed to advance the white industrial class at the expense of the black underclass.

Legassick argued that the purpose of separate development planning was to house African migrant labourers in segregated and managed compounds. These compounds (townships and hostels) are still prevalent in the mining industry today.

Harold Wolpe argued in a seminal paper in 1972 that apartheid was a response by the (white) capitalist class to a growing demand for cheap African (black) labour—specifically in the mines. He argued that the upshot of apartheid was to guarantee a black economic and social underclass.

Under the apartheid system, the exploitation of workers was an undisputed fact. In 1972, the deputy chairman of Anglo American, W.D. Wilson, stated publicly that wages on Anglo American-managed gold mines “did not represent a reasonable reward for the arduous and dangerous work”. He also admitted that, “Wages [are] extremely low in an absolute sense and compared unfavourably with other industrial wages, which were also criticized.”

For this very reason, workers were an essential part of the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa. The Freedom Charter, a statement of core principles of the liberation movement adopted in 1955, called for “equal pay for equal work”.

However, post-apartheid, the status quo persists. If anything, the tone changed from demanding an immediate end of worker exploitation to demanding progressive realization of worker rights through collective bargaining.

In 1993, then acting general secretary of NUM wrote: “The mines are one of the nodes of oppression and racism in the South African economy and it will be extremely difficult to restructure them, even once the official policy of Apartheid has been abandoned.”

The Final Constitution (1996) was an unfortunate twist. It effectively abandoned workers to fend alone by promulgating collective bargaining, through unionization, as the primary tool to end exploitation. This thinly-vailed liberalist approach was truly bizarre considering that workers -- largely unskilled and in abundant surplus -- hold no bargaining chips. Employers hold all the chips, and often replace workers by the thousands.

Second, the economy favours monopoly capital.

Rampant inequality, the availability of surplus labour, and a general lack of marketable skills all ensure that unskilled workers are in perpetual servitude. Workers who demand better wages or better working conditions are told to shut up or skit. For example, in 2011 Lonmin dismissed 11,000 employees, only to ‘re-employ’ them without meeting their demands. In 2012 Impala Platinum dismissed around 17,000 employees. These are gobsmacking figures!

The Bench Marks Foundation has done extensive research into the working and living conditions in South African mines. A majority of miners live in tin shacks, generally ten-by-eight feet. The shacks are poorly insulted and are used as a kitchen, living room and bathroom. Settlements do not have running water and lack sanitation facilities; miners use pit latrines. Settlements do not have electricity; residents use paraffin and primus stoves.

Over two decades have passed since the advent of democracy and freedom but workers are still waiting for their 1994 moment.

Third, solve the problem: buy a politician.

One would expect prominent politicians and unionists to take up the plight of workers. However, this is not happening. Part of the reason is that COSATU, the largest congress of affiliated unions, is in bed with the ruling party in the “Tripartite Alliance”. Moreover, prominent unionists bartered workers rights for comfy seats in the Union Buildings. Other politicians are co-opted to collude with capital through lucrative empowerment deals.

In one bizarre situation leading up to the massacre, Lonmin refused to negotiate with workers or with Amcu because it had a “relationship” NUM.

Finally, any justice for workers and their families?

The Farlam Commission was destined to disappoint the public. Its terms of reference limited the question to “who should take the fall”. With all due respect to the Commission, considering the stature of Judge Ian Farlam, the Commission was a long and tedious charade to find a fall guy.

Even if the Commission had made finding against Deputy President Ramaphosa, as some demanded, he would have been as much a fall guy as any police officer who fired a weapon. Although he makes for a bigger and flashier fish to fry, he is a pawn in a trillion rand scheme and barely satisfies the cause of justice.

Essentially there are two avenues for justice.

The first is simpler: we prosecute everyone who fired a gun or raised a machete and call it a day. Miners and their families will continue to starve, but they will starve with knowledge that South Africa is a "just" country. Note, however, that most officers will get off scotch free because criminal law offers several defences. The state will struggle to prove intention to kill. If anything, we will all endure a Pistorius-que media circus ending in a spectacular anti-climax when the accuseds are slapped on the wrist with culpable homicide.

The second avenue is more complex. Firstly, it requires us, the public, to take the baton from Mambush and to pursue the struggle fair pay for unskilled workers. Secondly, it also requires us to depoliticize unions and to break COSATU’s monopoly. Thirdly, this course requires us to demand that Lonmin should pay compensation for dead, injured and incarcerated workers and their families. This payment should form part of a political settlement with the firm for its blatant disregard of social labour plans. Finally, this course requires us to realign the incentives of politicians in order to advance the rights of workers. We must demand that politicians and their families should not hold financial stakes in exploitative companies.

Get in touch on Twitter: @Brad_Cibane


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