On Thursday 16th August, 34 striking mineworkers were shot dead by police at LONMIN’s platinum mine in Rustenberg. It is not yet clear why the police were using live ammunition, nor whether a warning was issued. Audio-visual depictions of the event demonstrate a systematic attack on strikers, with dead bodies strewn on the field while police continue with open fire.
In no way can this action be excused as a police warning to violent strikers to desist from attacking them. Police have access to buckshot; teargas; tazers; the ability to cordon off the strikers with layers of barbed wire or other more solid re-enforcements. They have the resources and expertise to contain and prevent violent crowds from harming others whilst trying to defuse the situation through negotiation. They should have knowledge of dozens of siege/negotiation combination tactics and actions, even if I am not aware of it.
I know that these exist internationally. I have watched Korean fishermen hurl themselves at policemen, battering them mercilessly with every weapon at their disposal during anti-WTO demonstrations in Hong Kong for days, without any fatalities. I have seen line after line of fresh police troops replace their furious and embattled comrades holding the frontlines of worker demonstrations in various countries of the world without even resorting to teargas. I have seen, here in South Africa pre 1994 and post, police cordon off uncontrollable areas and, if unable to influence or change the situation, wait for order to be restored. What has changed? Who do we hold responsible for this example of extreme moral bankruptcy, when the situational restoration of ‘order’ becomes more important than the lives of countless workers?
If we want to prevent this from occurring again, we have to make sure that this black Thursday of the 16th August 2012 is never forgotten. This means we have to acknowledge our culpability. In apportioning blame I do not exclude myself. As a labour educator and researcher, I have taught and written about the pioneering role of strikes in this country in shaping the organisations, legal protections and improved conditions of our industrial relations system, whilst either glossing over or excusing the coercive actions and violence workers have direct towards each other in the name of unity and solidarity. I will do so no longer. Worker unity has to be based on something superior to violent coercion. Unity on that basis cannot lead to any lasting, positive outcome. It has shaped the way we approach strike organisation in this country for far too long. As labour, we need to take responsibility for change in this respect.
Which is not to say that those who study, educate, lead and organise workers and communities have, in any meaningful way, control over whether violence will occur or not. They do not. As long as we have the depths of deprivation and differentiation we have here in South Africa, violence will shadow collective action, electoral and associational freedoms notwithstanding.
As the working poor, mineworkers live under similar levels of deprivation as the wild-cat strikers of the 1970s and 1980s whose actions shaped our current labour movement and constitutional dispensation. As the jobless youth, those who currently are burning tires and debris and stoning buses and taxis live under similar, appalling socio-economic conditions, are imbued with comparable levels of anger, frustration and helplessness to those of the 1980s and 1990s. Unless the socio-economic conditions change, violence will remain endemic to protest and resistance in South Africa.
By its mere prevalence, it becomes open to manipulation. Claims by various politicians and trade unionists of a “third force” summoning up the violence for their own advantage, have some resonance. However, despite their resonance, these claims of a third force should be no less acceptable to us today than they were when the apartheid government claimed this as the force behind the anti-apartheid and labour movements of thirty years ago.
Firstly, because to focus on an invisible (or visible only to some) external, third force as the main driver behind the strikers’ actions is a grievous disrespect of these workers’ own volition. Secondly, because the apportioning of blame externally both hides stakeholder culpability and also exonerates the responsibilities of said stakeholders to prevent a re-occurrence in future. We do not yet know the full extent of culpability behind the LONMIN disaster, but we already know enough to speculate on the consequent actions that could emerge.
The first lesson of the massacre is this – the time of celebrating past anti-apartheid heroism is over. The irony of having the former National Union of Mineworkers and ANC General Secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa, as a director on the LONMIN board just says it all. In respect of the traditional importance of burying the dead near their ancestors and families, his R2million offer towards their funerals will be helpful, but not enough. Non-executive director or not, Ramaphosa should commit himself to investigate and correct all mis-management that led to this disaster, under conditions of full transparency, or if he cannot, divest himself of any further interest in the company. That’s taking real responsibility, as a shareholder representative.
This leads us to the culpability of the mine management, who bypassed the collective bargaining processes to establish differentiated conditions amongst its workforce, sparking the wild-cat protests. Many, many lives have been lost in the establishment of our industrial relations system. our system has many flaws, not the least that it is inherently structurally unstable due to the grave differentials between the ceiling and floor of earnings within the country, company and workplace. The arrogance and disrespect shown by LONMIN management to this reality should not go unrecognised. Whoever was responsible for this decision should resign, and issue a statement acknowledging culpability. Furthermore, their replacements at LONMIN management should recognise whomever the strikers elect as their leaders. The ability to recognise a crisis and respond accordingly is an essential requirement of management. LONMIN failed dismally in this respect.
Then there are the police. This massacre and the total disregard for the protection of lives, even of those who were aggressive and armed (although the exact extend of this has to be established), is a direct result of the modelling of the police as an armed force rather than a service. A judicial enquiry may reveal the actual culpability of those who made the decision and took action, but as citizens we are entitled to hold our elected representatives accountable for the decisions and actions of those under their command. The appointment of Cele, the introduction of military titles and the blatant culture of use of force as a first resort has taken place under the watch of the current minister of police and his deputy. They should resign with immediate effect and be replaced by politicians committed to a police service that holds the protection of human life supreme.
Last, but by no means least, there are the unions. As the largest COSATU affiliate, the NUM is “kingmaker” amongst our unions. It influences every ANC party election, and through this, parliamentary and cabinet positioning. Yet it is as vulnerable on the workplace as any other union. It cannot afford to neglect consistent and comprehensive grassroots organisation and voice at the workplace. This is no easy task, because it requires the union to at all-time have its primary articulation being that which furthers the interests of its workers, even at the cost of its king-making role.
The massacre has brought home the political reality, which should not be too difficult for the NUM leadership to openly face and acknowledge, that the class interests of the NUM are easier shared with the leaders of its bitter rival at LONMIN, AMCO, than with their allies in the ANC NEC. If they have the courage to do this openly the will destroy the spurious argument that NUM or COSATU officials, by virtue of earning a decent wage (contrary to the workers whose conditions their life’s work is dedicated to improve) and perhaps even, horror of horrors, by residing in the suburbs, are losing touch with the rank and file.
For if this were true, how could Julius Malema, king of bling, just fly in from London and address the striking workers to welcome applause? Do these commentators really think those strikers are not aware that Malema’s wealth is one hundred times greater than any union official? Populist demagogue par excellence, Malema tells them what they want to hear, and they welcome him because of this. As a union official or leader, you cannot always do this. Even the leader of AMCO tried to dissuade the strikers and failed. There are no easy solutions, but one thing is very clear. As labour the NUM and COSATU have to unambiguously condemn the firing and killing of striking workers, and not exempt any power broker, whether their allies in the ANC leadership battle; mine management or the police from culpability in this regard.
Sahra Ryklief is Secretary General of IFWEA, and an experienced South African labour activist and educator