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'What we do now will define us as a nation'

27 August 2012

The events at Marikana last week represent probably the lowest moment in the short history of a democratic South Africa. The scenes, reminiscent of an age we thought had been long left behind, have shaken the nation to its core. As we mourn those who lost their lives, we must confront the critical challenges of healing and ensuring that this never happens again. For what we do now will define us as a nation.


Over the course of our history, South Africa has experienced several terrible events in which many have died and scores have been badly injured. Some of these events changed our country irrevocably and set us on a new path of change. As we come to terms with this tragedy, we must do everything in our power to ensure that South Africa is a different, better country after this.


What we do now will determine whether the tragedy of Marikana becomes the dominant symbol of our post-apartheid existence. It will determine whether we become a nation defined by violence, alienation and dysfunction, or one that is united and steadfast in the betterment of our human condition.


Much has been written about the confluence of circumstances that led to the deaths of 44 people. The judicial commission of inquiry established by President Jacob Zuma will shed light on how the events unfolded. Both the public commentary and the inquiry are essential to our efforts to understand what has happened. But they will be meaningless if we are not able to find the resolve and the courage to attend to the flaws in our society that these events have exposed.


The events at Marikana have revealed in the starkest terms possible the extent to which violence has become the language through which discontent is articulated and disagreement mediated. Such is the depth of grievance and such is the extent of popular alienation that, to some, peaceful forms of protest seem ineffective. For a nation that owes its democratic dispensation to its ability to resolve what was seemingly an intractable conflict, this is a devastating realisation.


It is not sufficient to bemoan this development. We need to act now to address it. We need to attend both to the mechanisms through which we resolve conflict, and to the broader question of how those in positions of responsibility interact with, and are guided by, the needs and interests of working people and communities.


In the early 1990s, in response to escalating political violence, diverse parties came together to negotiate the National Peace Accord, with mechanisms for independent monitoring and mediation. There is much that can be learnt from that experience. The current situation suggests the need for a society-wide effort to promote peaceful resolution of conflict. We need to reclaim our capacity to negotiate.


We should be encouraged by the efforts of such a diversity of groups in the aftermath of the tragedy – churches, political parties, national, provincial and local government, mining companies, the Chamber of Mines, trade unions, and business organisations. It also demonstrates the care that South Africans show when their children are in pain. All these groupings have, in the main, been making constructive interventions to resolve the crisis and encourage healing.


There is a need too for public political representatives, state officials, the corporate sector and organised labour to focus on how they engage with the communities they serve, whether they are communicating effectively, and the extent to which they are able to listen and take counsel from these communities. This responsibility is not confined to government. The democratic dispensation we live in today requires that companies also need to be more engaged with the communities in which they operate. They need to be sensitive to their needs, and ensure that they are able to respond to their concerns.


The tragedy points also to weaknesses in our approach to labour relations and the laws that underpin it. Collective bargaining is at the centre of this approach, and is intended to ensure that negotiations over wages and working conditions are inclusive, fair and encourage stability and certainty. Recent experiences at Lonmin, Implats and other platinum mines suggest that there needs to be a critical look at whether these approaches are sufficiently robust to account for a changing labour environment. The commitment by unions, employers and government to discuss these and other issues must be welcomed and encouraged. This tragic incident must lead to a step change in the way collective bargaining and labour relations in general are conducted in the mining industry. Centralised bargaining in the platinum industry may well be the better solution.


There needs to be a change in the way that the right to strike is exercised. This hard-won right is not a licence to engage in violence and intimidation. The rules of engagement between striking workers and employers need be agreed and adhered to.


Through difficult and protracted struggle, mineworkers have achieved significant gains. In 1982, mineworkers were the lowest-paid industrial workers. That is no longer the case in real terms. Despite the real gains of the last 30 years, we need to reflect on whether mineworkers get adequate compensation commensurate with the dangerous and gruelling work that they undertake.


Underpinning all the factors that led to this tragedy are the extremes of economic inequality, poverty and underdevelopment that continue to characterise our society. The conditions on the platinum belt in the North West resemble those in many communities, both urban and rural, across the country. It is here that systemic unemployment; poor infrastructure, erratic services and social dislocation combine to create miserable living conditions for many of our people.


While mining may bring some benefits to the areas in which it operates – in the form of employment opportunities, investment in social services and infrastructure, and general economic development – it also contributes to several social problems. The migrant labour system remains a mainstay of the industry. In addition to causing geographical dislocation, and requiring workers to split their income between rural and urban lives, the system also contributes to antagonism between migrant workers and local residents. Yet, eradicating the migrant labour system would have dire consequences for labour sending areas. The system needs to be transformed. Mining companies, labour and government need now to develop an approach to labour supply that relieves the social and economic pressures on workers.


In many instances, mines are located in areas with poor infrastructure, weak governance and few services. Informal settlements quickly develop as workers make use of the housing allowance paid to those who choose not to live in mine accommodation. This points to the need for better development planning and greater cooperation between government and mining companies. We need to think beyond the social and labour plans that mining companies develop. We must measure success not merely by regulatory compliance, but by the tangible differences we make in the lives of the people in mining communities. More broadly, however, the severe economic conditions under which many South Africans live require urgent and dedicated attention.


There are few innocents in this tragic saga. Those who suffered the greatest loss – the wives, partners and children of those who died – bear the least responsibility for what happened. The rest of us will find it harder to make such a claim. This must include the Lonmin management, board and all its shareholders, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the South African Police Service, and the striking miners themselves. For wherever we find ourselves, we cannot escape the sense that, through our action or inaction, we bear some responsibility for the circumstances that made such a tragedy possible. As we mourn, so too must we introspect.


Crucially, however, that introspection must give way to action and effective change. As South Africans, as individuals, as a nation, we have the responsibility and the capacity not only to make sure that something like this never happens again. We also have the responsibility and the capacity to ensure that we effectively transform the social and economic fabric of our society. What we do now as a people will determine what we become as a nation.



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