The massacre of 34 people by police in Marikana, South Africa last week shocked not only locals, but the world. The conflict has many dimensions but the chief factors that led to it are being analysed in a very thorough way by the media, numerous political entities and NGOs.
The analysis will show two things for certain: that the mining industry must once and for all be shaken out of its neo-liberal, ANC supported, ‘profit at all costs’ mentality and assume proper social responsibility or face radical opposition which may lead to nationalisation; and that the trade unions active in it must wake up and service their members in a far more proactive and comprehensive way so as to offer real leadership and protection from exploitation.
Even a cursory glance at the background to the Lonmin miners’ revolt demonstrates the following:
1.That the company violated an in-force wage agreement by unilaterally giving a section of the work-force an increase thereby creating massive tensions within the ranks of those who did not receive the unprocedural increase; this is yet another example of company contempt for building genuine industrial relations based on a partnership that benefits all stakeholders and respects labour law;
2.That the majority union, NUM, did not act timeously nor effectively deal with this unfair labour practice; that its leadership has for some time been completely out of touch with the rank and file membership and hides behind the police and the company;
3.that the minority union, AMCU, had neither the authority nor leadership capacity to guide workers intelligently with the result that wild expectations of immediate and massive increases were built up; new unions challenging for organisational rights must be careful not to incite workers with populist rhetoric that can have no positive result;
4.That the squatter camps surrounding the platinum mines in particular (but not exclusively) are a time-bomb waiting to explode because both the mining companies and government are leaving them to fester without most of the basic services that people need and keep demanding; that the migrant labour system (which we thought had ended with apartheid) is still very much alive and is leading to major tensions between migrant workers and local communities who ought to have first choice of local labour opportunities;
5.That provision of decent housing for miners is still a major problem and needs an urgent industry/government response; the lack of sufficient properly serviced housing leads to a multitude of social problems in the areas adjoining the mines as thousands of single men lack the stabilising influences of the families they have left elsewhere;
6.That the super profits realised by the platinum industry over the last decade be taxed at a higher rate than is currently the case so as to benefit the communities living along the platinum reef;
7.That the ANC must wake up to the fact that such revolts will become endemic if its fat-cat, business bias mentality does not change and change fast; if the rot has gone too far for reform of the organisation then South Africa will slide into a new period of militarised dictatorship as the black elite uses the police and armed forces to control working class anger and frustration stemming from abysmal living standards and conditions while seeing the elite enjoying lives of luxury;
8.That the crowd control training given to the police is grossly inadequate and that its leadership is similarly ill-equipped to deal with flash points like strikes and other demonstrations of mass anger;
9.That the need for an over-arching social contract (an economic Codesa) has never been more urgent – otherwise the fruits of a relatively successful political settlement will entirely dissipate and our society will again be faced by massive instability and violence.
Given the above points, we may come to see the Marikana Massacre as an important watershed. The tragedy has thrown the contradictions inherent in our society into very sharp relief and demands firm and decisive action from all parties if they are to be resolved. Indeed, the responses by all parties to the conflict will be critical to our future, not only in the mining sector, but across the board. Big business must wake up to its responsibilities – not only to its direct shareholders but to the wider society within which it operates. And if the ANC cannot guide such development effectively then workers will soon draw their conclusions and form a political organisation that can truly advance their interests.