South Africa

Marikana strikers send ‘down tools, or else’ message to remaining Lonmin employees

By Sipho Hlongwane 6 September 2012

Anyone who is still working at the Karee mine of Lonmin PLC has now been officially warned by the striking miners. Down tools – or else. After the release of some of their comrades from prison and more than two weeks of mourning, the Marikana miners have now turned to belligerence as a bargaining weapon. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

The decision by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to release all the miners charged for murder and attempted murder under the unpopular “common purpose” provision may have been motivated by political expediency or just good, old-fashioned fear of embarrassment. It certainly was not intended to give the miners still on strike at the Wonderkop informal settlement near the town of Marikana the impression they were winning or gaining ground against the government or Lonmin PLC. 

But that is not how things were understood by the leaders of the wildcat strike that has stretched for almost three weeks now. They embarked Tuesday on a march from Marikana to the nearby Karee mine (also owned by Lonmin) to demand that all workers still reporting for duty cease to do so – or be “dealt with”. 

Watch: Lonmin rock-drill operators on strike in Marikana (Sipho Hlongwane)

The threat was never quite laid out in graphic detail, but anyone on its receiving end would not have needed an elaborate explanation of the consequences they were courting. Not only were the marchers brandishing large sticks and the occasional whip, they were singing songs of battle. The knowledge that some of these men are responsible for the deaths of 10 people, which happened almost a week before the police shot 112 strikers – killing 34 and injuring 78 – would have helped drive the point home. 

Photo by Kyle de Waal

The decision to march was made Tuesday, a day after 162 prisoners (according to the NPA) were released on a free bail, but no one who was freed could be found among the marchers. When we asked, we were told that they had gone to the Jericho and Bethanie police stations in Brits to fetch their cell phones. Finding a familiar face from outside the Ga-Rankuwa Magistrates Court among thousands of other faces was a bit of a fool’s errand, and even if they were present in that strike, they would have notified their leaders that the conditions of their bail prevented them from taking part in any activity that could be deemed violent or part of an intimidation campaign – which is exactly what happened Wednesday.

The march started from the Wonderkop area and proceeded towards the mine, located just outside of the Marikana town. Along the way, several police armoured trucks with riot police and at least one large armoured personnel carrier loaded with the beret-wearing members of the tactical response team tried to stop the march, but they eventually decided to stick to corralling it after realising they were too outnumbered to really do anything. At the mine, the leaders of the group tried to give a list of demands to mine management, but after no representative met them, they resorted to yelling their warning to one security guard whom they could see, perched above the fence around the mine. 

Back at Wonderkop, the threat against anyone caught going to work was repeated. Company vehicles transporting people to the various mines would be watched, the crowd was told.

The wildcat strike leaders have often relished the opportunity to get onto the sound system that was rigged up in the meeting spot on 18 August, but previously this was to make sure that the gathered crowd and the media heard the “correct” version of the events of 16 August. For about a week after the shootings, the official word came from the police, which infuriated the strikers. Their story about a second killing spot has been considerably bolstered by the discovery of blood and forensic markings at a koppie that had been hidden from television cameras and never mentioned by the police in their releases. 

The miners are strangely just as happy to publicly and loudly broadcast their intimidation to those people who still choose to go to work, despite the strike. They are more at ease with the press with each passing day, but continuously warn against anyone in their midst leaking information to the police (there is a persistent and difficult-to-pin-down rumour about police spies in the group). Surely they recognise that broadcasting an intimidation message could backfire on the individuals doing so? Then again, they are probably past the point of caring. 

The miners might be sensing a stronger hand in the wrangling, but they might not be aware of just how close to the tipping point Lonmin itself is. According to at least one analyst, the company will have to restart production Friday or shut down its operations altogether. That would be catastrophic, as it announced two weeks ago that production stoppages could mean it would fail to meet some of its debt obligations. On Tuesday, only about 1,820 of the 28,000 Lonmin workers showed up for work.

Company spokesperson Sue Vey said Tuesday that the company was not yet being pressed into making a decision, but that continued stoppages meant that up to 14,000 workers could lose their jobs.

The peace accord (or negotiation that nobody really wanted) has also failed to yield results. Lonmin won’t put a wage talk on the table, while the workers won’t negotiate on any point without wages being discussed.

The NPA said it would release more miners on Thursday. The miners at Marikana may once again read this as a step forward in their particular campaign, and decide to follow it up with another demonstration. How peacefully another such day will go is anyone’s guess. DM

All photos: Striking Marikana Lonmin miners march to deliver their demands to Lonmin management. They hold up the image of Mambush, one of the strike leaders killed by police. Marikana, North West Province, South Africa. September 5, 2012. (Greg Marinovich, except where otherwise noted)


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