Violence could have been foreseen | by Stuart Theobald

by Aug 21, 2012All Articles

SIX weeks ago I went on a tour of Lonmin’s operations in the Bushveld Complex near Rustenburg. It was a PR exercise. I was shown the Marikana clinic where the company had invested millions in impressive facilities.

With a group of journalists, we saw schools it supported, where textbooks arrive and teachers are trained. We walked through one of the many informal settlements that lack any formal infrastructure, meeting AIDS sufferers whom the company supports to ensure they receive antiretrovirals and nutrition. We met enthusiastic members of the company’s community action team who work hard to get the most out of the limited budgets the company gives them.

We also went into the heart of the operations. Down the Saffy shaft, 300m underground, we crawled in the 150cm gap along the ore seam.

With your way illuminated only by the lamp on your hard hat, you feel glad for the steel-capped boots and safety overalls you are required to wear, as well as the weighty emergency oxygen unit attached to your belt.

The engineering feats are impressive — the liquid concrete pumped around the mine into canvas sacks that inflate to become rock-solid pillars to hold back tons of rock over your head. The giant ventilation fans that ensure the air is breathable.

At the stope face I drilled into the wall, for a few seconds experiencing what it is like for workers on an eight-hour shift. Crouched with a small team, drilling hole after hole in the dark, later to be filled with explosives to blast away the next load of ore. Knowing that your team is one of hundreds drilling at the ore in the warren of tunnels running for kilometres around you. It is a difficult and dangerous job.

I also saw the obsession with safety. How the whole mine takes “safety breaks” every few hours, stopping work and checking the environment. Any worker who feels there is a safety risk has the right to stop work. Workers are drilled on safety constantly.

As we entered the Saffy shaft we passed a large display showing how one fatality at the mine had happened that year. The worker had not fixed the cogs properly for a pulley mechanism. It is at the top of the shaft for a reason, a reminder you are entering territory where people die.

We were shown the hostels with eight beds squashed together in a dormitory. In the 1980s and early 1990s these would have been bunk beds, holding 16 men per dirty, foetid room, adding up to thousands in the hostels that were run with prison-like discipline. But now the rooms are steadily being converted into pleasant family and bachelor units. Children kicked balls around on the grass.

Women hung out washing. The mine has for some years given workers the option to receive a housing allowance rather than stay in the hostels.

We could see painfully that the demand for housing and public facilities this resulted in was being inadequately met by the local government.

But on all our minds was the labour dispute between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) that had months earlier become so apparent with the strike at neighbouring Impala. We interrogated management about it. We interrogated the NUM shop steward who joined us for part of the tour.

While in the informal settlement, we stopped a wary worker on the street. We asked him which union he supported and, somewhat nervously with journalists jockeying to hear him, he told us he supported Amcu because it represented his interests.

We heard from management how it had departed from the strategy of other large miners and given Amcu certain rights of access and seats at some meetings. But we heard also how the NUM would refuse to attend those meetings if Amcu was present. We heard how the NUM was facing losing its closed-shop agreement which allowed it to be the exclusive negotiator, and that it now had three months to recruit new members to take it back above its 50%-plus-one threshold. This meant tension in the ranks. Yet management spoke of its cautious optimism, claiming to have a much better relationship with Amcu than the other mines.

But in the end it was not the relationship with management that mattered. It came down to the standoff between the unions, with both desperate to recruit members to entrench their power on the mine. Using any management action to whip workers into a frenzy, Amcu’s strategy was effective: promise workers the completely undeliverable, such as a 300% wage increase for rock drillers, and then pin the blame for nondelivery on the NUM and management. The NUM could do little in response.

Perhaps the violence could have been anticipated. Union rivalry built out of the Labour Relations Act, local delivery failure, political rivalry, a loss-making company, an armed and poorly trained police force. How did we not see it coming?

20 August 2012

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