South Africa

Marikana Commission: The foiled saviour, Joseph Mathunjwa

By Sipho Hlongwane 29 November 2012

AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa is currently enjoying a spell of justification at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry after a fearsome fight between his union and NUM. After all, he was the boy who cried wolf, and indeed there was one setting about the flock. If the situation allowed, he would certainly allow himself a grin of smugness. Instead, we are left to ponder what could have been if only he had been listened to before the shooting started. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Isn’t it strange how two men can have exactly the same premonition, and proceed to do exactly the same thing to prevent the impending doom, and yet only one of them gets to walk away vindicated? This is the case of the presidents of two rival unions, Senzeni Zokwana of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Joseph Mathunjwa of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). They both thought that the stalemate at Marikana would lead to bloodshed, and they each in their own way tried to stop it. Yet circumstances now leave one with the trophies that matter, and the other to wonder how it all went wrong.

As we speak, AMCU is swiftly becoming the union of choice – if not of dominance – across the platinum mining industry. NUM has lost favour. There are some signs that this change could come to the gold mining industry too. For the unions, this is the aftermath that really matters. 

Mathunjwa is in the midst of a long session before the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. So far, we have heard a vicious argument between him, Zokwana and Lonmin’s vice-president of human capital and external affairs Barnard Mokwena that was aired on SAfm just hours before the massacre happened. It was clear then that what was uppermost on the minds of these men was union turf. Then things escalated swiftly. On the 16th, the AMCU president tried to act as messenger and mediator between the police, the company and the striking miners. Then the police enforced their might, and an hour later, 34 people lay dead, and a further 78 lay beside them, bloodied and wounded. 

For most of Monday and Tuesday, Mathunjwa sat silently as his conversations with Lonmin, NUM and the police were replayed at the commission. His cross-examination has yet to begin – but AMCU started claiming a long time ago that it was the true friend of the worker, not NUM, and he will likely be able to use his time on the hot seat as further proof of that. 

In the SAfm interview, Zokwana and Mathunjwa scrapped viciously. When they had to face the workers, as ordered by the police, they carried the same message to the miners. The NUM president was rejected outright, to the point that he rather stayed in the armoured vehicle in which he was transported to the scene, rather than risking death. The AMCU president had enjoyed some success on previous days, but on this day was met with blunt stubbornness. 

Mathunjwa said to the commission that when he arrived at the scene on the 16th, the miners seemed to be relaxed, but the police were on edge. He was also very distressed to discover that the North-West police commissioner Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo was not there. 

According to him, Lonmin had promised on the 15th to meet the miners, but suddenly pulled back the next day. 

“I was agitated. They were reneging on their commitment. I felt we were betrayed as a union,” he said. Then a phone was handed to him. 

“The person on the phone did not introduce herself, she was just rude and her voice was harsh. That person was North West provincial commissioner General Zukiswa Mbombo. She kept saying I had made a commitment to return to the koppie by 9am. I told her I had been delayed by the Lonmin management who had somersaulted from their commitment. She said she doesn’t care.”

Mathunjwa said that he had been tasked with convincing the miners to disperse that morning, but had been unable to because the meeting with Lonmin did not go as planned. The company told them that the police had now taken over, and they would not be taking part in any talks. 

On 15 August, at a hastily-convened press conference in Johannesburg, a grim Zokwana told reporters that he had tried his best to quell the situation, but was very fearful. It was apparent from the way that he spoke that he had been thoroughly terrified when he had tried to meet with the men, and believed that tragedy was a very possible outcome. 

“The way that the men on the mountain are psyched, it is only the police who will be able to deal with them,” he said that day at the union’s headquarters in downtown Johannesburg. 

No matter what Mathunjwa may say, Zokwana at least shared his concerns. But thanks to the rank hostility that NUM has received since 16 August (some men we spoke to seem to truly believe that Zokwana called the police to shoot them down), the once-dominant union faces a dark future in the platinum mines. 

The other advocates will have their opportunity to go to work on Mathunjwa. But on Monday and Tuesday, he could just sit, the world observing his efforts to stop the impending doom. Perhaps it was no mistake that the auditorium was populated with a large AMCU contingent. They will need to remember this day, because the one to come will not be easy by any means. DM

Read more:

Photo: Protesting miners react as the police shot at them outside Marikana, August 16, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko