Monday, August 27, 2012

Marikana as a microcosm.

How the tragedy reflects many serious socio-economic issues of our time.

It could have become one of the longest reports ever written. If the Commission of Enquiry into the Marikana massacre goes beyond its terms of reference and covers all of the nuances and underlying factors that went into the making of a tragedy on that outcrop at Lonmin’s platinum mine near Rustenburg, it will become a voluminous litany of socio-economic dysfunction.

One already has a taste of this not only from the widespread headline coverage that has saturated local and international media, but from the very disparate sources of comment and analysis – religious, political, legal, social and business. They all bear valid testimony to the very wide ranging issues involved. Well, not all. Emotion can sometimes produce some strange perspectives – like questioning platinum’s “noble metal” status in exploiting labour to “adorn elitist ring fingers” and for catalytic converters in “luxury yupmobiles”.

It is a hopeless and futile task to try and cover all of the key issues in a column like this and to avoid repetition. So it is not without some hesitancy that I become one of those bees whose swarm has been disturbed by the gunfire and who buzz in an already overflowing space of comment. But somehow I can’t help seeing in those excessively repeated video scenes, a severe indictment of a global economic state that is clearly in crisis and of voices that were not heard by the powers that were supposed to have served them.

In one of his first interviews after his ground-breaking Labour reforms, Nic Wiehahn told me: “If you have one worker who can bring your operations to a standstill, you had better talk to him.” He saw collective bargaining as an essential counter to industrial chaos and uncontrolled mobs of frustrated workers sabotaging their workplaces. He also saw union rights for all as at least one form of enfranchising the politically disenfranchised at the time and something of a safety valve for frustrated political expression. That automatically created a disproportionate bond between worker and political aspirations, the results of which are still evident today.

Power has an intrinsic anomaly – the more you centralise it, the more powerful and corruptible it becomes and the more it loses touch with its support base. What you are often left with is an elitist and aloof leadership and fragmented support consisting of many “minorities of one or a few.” In labour, that not only encourages competitive unions, which in itself is not a bad thing, but more frighteningly can lead to marginalised groups that become unruly mobs. While Marikana has been blamed mostly on union rivalry, the rivalry itself had to find some root in a disgruntled group. If this spreads to other workplaces, we could be in for a further and severe deterioration of industrial relations.

There clearly is also a gulf between leaders and supporters in centralised political power in South Africa. The three tier government structure is overwhelmingly dominated by the dictates of national parties. Recruiting support for their power bases both in government and labour produces a highly dangerous toxic mix of unrealistic expectations that fuel explosive situations of which there have been many since 1994.

Although formed and manifest differently, greater centralisation of economic power has created a similar alienation. Increasingly large corporate institutions, holding companies and big business have contributed to a growing public perception of a dehumanised business environment driven virtually exclusively for profit and viewing all involved, including customers, as resources to be exploited in squeezing out each drop to enhance shareholder value. It certainly has exacerbated income disparities and in the public eye at least, given these institutions undue influence over government and impact on their daily lives.

Mining has brought significant economic benefits to this country. Indeed overall, labour and government as a group have been bigger monetary beneficiaries than shareholders as a group. But no-where is business more dehumanised than in mining. In most other businesses at least, there is some sense of meaning beyond profit and pay – that of service to customers. Mining is not market driven, but market led or pulled. There is no sense of customers and service. No-one who has not worked underground for more than a brief spell, will fully understand the psyche of an underground worker. It is like going into battle, sometimes for up to 10-hours on rotating shifts, often crawling through narrow spaces to reach a dangerous claustrophobic area at the face, where the rock drillers have to struggle with heavy vibrating machines for hours on end.

It’s an environment that breeds tough, macho men for whom working close to death or injury daily intensifies frustrations and fortifies them for violent confrontations elsewhere and who, apart from a desperately needed pay cheque, hold it together underground through a palpable sense of soldierly camaraderie. In these conditions, you simply cannot explain huge pay disparities and a stipend (even at more than R8000 pm gross) that in most cases has to feed a much extended family – a burden that keeps on growing with rising unemployment. It’s a highly emotional context that will always overwhelm any rational academic argument based on supply and demand for skills and qualifications. Living conditions are often not much better, despite efforts by the industry generally to improve them. All of this has been born out of an unfortunate colonial history of real wage slavery, migrant labour, compounds, hostels, and frequent deaths and injuries underground. Remnants of those conditions still remain.

What’s highly incongruous is why any group of strikers find it necessary or are allowed to be armed to the teeth with lethal weapons. There was a time when faction fighting was a regular occurrence, and weapons were fashioned from any suitable object that could be found – spears shaped from heavy tempered-steel rock drills, spikes, choppers, axes, pangas, knobkerries, shanks and knives.

Many of these were brandished on that now infamous koppie at Marikana. If I had a machine gun and they came storming at me from the hill, I doubt whether I could have resisted the urge to open fire.

But then I am not a policeman trained – or at least who should be trained – to handle these things.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article Jerry. I can't help thinking of the relevance of the research carried out by Etsko (Schuitema) in a mining environment which determined that the care and growth of others is the key to providing a win-win for all concerned.