As South Africa’s longest strike drags on with no resolution yet in sight, hunger stalks the shanties of Marikana. With the Farlam Commission due to finish by 31 July (perhaps), witnesses are being flipped like television channels by a nine-year-old with the remote in his hand and a candy jar on his lap. GREG MARINOVICH reports on a first glimpse into Lonmin’s view on what happened on 16 August 2012.
Mike Da Costa was, in 2012, the manager of Lonmin’s Karee mine, one of the three mining units at Marikana. Karee has been the mine that caused all the trouble for Lonmin from years before the massacre until today. It is notorious among miners as the mine with the most intolerable working conditions. The men at the rock face are almost continually wet underground, with conditions said to be more physically arduous than at Lonmin’s Eastern or Western Platinum operations.
It is little surprise that it is from Karee that all of Lonmin’s major labour disputes have arisen.
Da Costa was cross-examined about the genesis of the 2012 strike, as well as the role played by the Lonmin executives in how it played out, ending in the deaths of 34 miners and the wounding of 76 more by police gunfire on a late winter’s afternoon.
The Lonmin manager, with his executive committee’s blessing, had previously agreed to speak directly to rock drill operators. Recent pay advances at Impala and Amplats forced Lonmin to acknowledge they were paying their drillers less than other the platinum mines and knew they had to address it or face losing these vital workers to their competitors.
Thus it was that on 21 June 2012, 300 drillers completed their shift at Karee, had a meeting and marched to Da Costa’s office. He agreed to meet them, and was startled at their demand for a monthly wage of R12,500. It was the first time such a figure had been aired. (It is the same figure the platinum miners are currently out on strike for, just under two years later.)
While, strictly speaking, Da Costa should not have been having discussions with employees about wage demands, he did. He justified this because “knowing that this is a scarce skill, knowing that we’re falling behind somewhat, I felt that it was prudent to listen to them and when I heard that they were unhappy about their wages it occurred to me that I should escalate this to the EXCO so that the EXCO was aware of the fact that this was the feeling, and so that they could apply their minds to see if there was some, some solution to the issue.” Da Costa described the miners’ representatives in his office as “respectful, humble” and “cordial”.
At this stage, it was just the rock drillers who were making this demand, and they made it very clear to Da Costa that they did not want to involve the unions. Da Costa said he would take the demand to the executive committee and get back to them in two weeks. This pragmatism by Da Costa to meet with and agree to pass on their demands would be critical to how matters would play out on the Koppie three weeks later.
Of course, Lonmin did not want to negotiate directly with the drillers – they had an agreement with the NUM, which was the recognised negotiating partner at the mine. Lonmin, as can be expected, wished to have wages and such discussed through the tried and tested NUM. Yet to the miners in Da Costa’s office, NUM was no friend. The NUM was opposed to these drillers getting an increase. They had a policy that all workers had to have the same increase in salary in every wage band, no matter what the merits of the case were.
The drillers were incensed that their perilous and valuable occupation should be granted the same financial recognition as an above-ground cleaner, for example.
The NUM had taken that position knowing full well that they had lost Karee mine to rebel NUM members led by Steve Khululekile and the upstart AMCU the year before. (The full story of that can be read here.) The short story is that NUM members voted for Steve as their shop steward against the wishes of NUM’s regional and national officials. Lonmin and NUM then conspired to fire all of the Karee staff who were on an unprotected strike, and to only rehire those they thought could be made loyal to NUM Central.
Khululekile, of course, was not rehired.
That did not work out too well for the NUM or Lonmin, as the majority of the workers at Karee (but not Eastern and Western Platinum) stayed loyal to Khululekile and either joined AMCU or remained within NUM as dissidents. Even though Khululekile no longer worked at the mine, and was not allowed on the premises, he was very active organising for AMCU offsite.
The new hires to replace the fired militants were soon in step with the sentiments at Karee, and that is how we came to 21 June 2012, when the Karee rock drill operators marched on Da Costa’s office to demand more equitable pay, and better conditions.
Lonmin came back two weeks later with an offer of “an allowance” to bring the miners’ monthly pay closer to that of Amplats and Impala. This ranged from R750 for a rock drill operator who worked without an assistant, to R500 for one who did have an assistant. This offer came nowhere near to meeting the R12,500 a month for the workers who were then on R4,500 a month. Lonmin also sent a notice expressly telling their employees that this was in no ways an opening of wage negotatians, which were locked down until October 2013.
On letting the Karee drillers know what Lonmin’s offer was, Da Costa feared that “some labour unrest” might develop, and he warned mine security should be on high alert. Da Costa was right; the miners’ were not happy with the offer and the small group of rock drillers began to organise more broadly.
At the Commission, evidence leader Geoff Budlender began digging into the cynical approach by Lonmin, who told the miners: If you want to talk to us about your grievances, go through NUM. Lonmin would not engage the drillers’ delegation. And as the tensions rose, still management stood aloof. By the second week of August, thousands of dissatisfied miners marched, once again, on Lonmin’s Marikana offices. They wanted to present a memorandum to management about their wage demands. No one from management would come out to meet them, and instead a security guard passed on the instruction that the miners take their memorandum to the NUM, who were the only ones who could bring wage demands to management.
It was from this day that Da Costa’s prediction of violence would come to pass. A mass meeting was held, and the miners decided to go on strike. They also decided to march on NUM local office with their demands on that Saturday the 11th. The striking miners came under fire from the NUM office, with two of the marchers being shot and believed killed. It would later turn out that the two had in fact been injured, but the belief was that the NUM had indeed killed two workers instead of taking their memorandum to management.
As the unprotected strike became more and more violent, Lonmin still refused to speak directly to their employees. By this time, it was not just Karee, but all of Lonmin that were out on strike, and Da Costa’s voice within Lonmin had given way to that of the executive committee.
As the police, NUM and AMCU tried to defuse the situation at the Koppie, Lonmin steadfastly refused to talk to their own workers. They even called the men on the hill “faceless” and “unknown to us”, despite the fact that the vast majority were current Lonmin employees and most of the rest previous employees.
The miners’ delegation was equally steadfast – they wanted Lonmin to come to talk to them. Yet this was not, as it initially seems, a standoff. Not all standoffs are equal, however, as evidence leader Budlender put the crux of the matter to Da Costa at the Commission:
MR BUDLENDER SC: And Lonmin never suggested it. All they said repeatedly was lay down your weapons, come down off the Koppie, go back to work and then we will talk to you through NUM. That was consistently Lonmin’s position.
MR DA COSTA: My understanding of the situation is we want management to come to us, to the Koppie, to come and – so that we can talk to them about our twelve-and-a-half thousand rand demand.
MR BUDLENDER SC: Yes. They wanted to talk.
MR DA COSTA: In my view they wanted us to come there to tell them they could have the R12,500 so that they could go back to work.
MR BUDLENDER SC: Well, of course they did. I mean that’s, obviously they did, but they didn’t say we will only talk to you if you agree to give us R12,500. They said we want to talk.
There was no position which was more fixed than Lonmin’s position, which was we will only talk to you if you lay down your weapons, you come down off the Koppie and you go back to work and then we will talk to you through NUM. That was a fixed position if there were ever a fixed position.
What I want to ask you is this, and I ask it to you not cynically or to score points, but it seems to me it’s an important question which Lonmin has to answer. Ten deaths was not enough to cause that. Another 34 deaths was enough to cause that. What was the tipping point? How many people had to die before Lonmin was willing to talk directly to the strikers?
MR DA COSTA: No, I don’t think there was a tipping point.
MR BUDLENDER SC: Well, it tipped, didn’t it? It tipped from we won’t talk to we will talk. Isn’t that true?
MR DA COSTA: Well, it did change from that we weren’t talking and then we did engage with the striking workers after the 16th, yes.
MR BUDLENDER SC: Well, can you explain to me the logic of what I understand to have been Lonmin’s position – three positions; position one, we will talk to the RDOs at Karee during June when there have been no deaths, but there’s a threat of an unprotected strike. Second position, we will talk to the strikers in September when there have been 44 deaths. Third position in the middle, but we will not talk to the strikers in August when there have been ten deaths. Now what’s the logic of that?
MR DA COSTA: Well, it is a difficult position …
That difficult position for Lonmin was not even one that the NUM wanted to get involved in – NUM told Lonmin that they would not stand in the way of allowing management to engage directly with the miners. The NUM knew how deeply the animosity against the union ran, and several of their local officials had to flee Marikana in fear for their lives. Despite that, then-NUM president Senzeni Zokwana went to the Koppie – albeit in a police Nyala – to try to talk them down. It did not work, but he tried, even though he recognised that he was seen as the enemy by many of those miners.
Even on the morning of the fateful day that the massacre took place, AMCU’s Joseph Mathunjwa was at the Koppie, and the miners’ delegates told him that they were aware that management might not be able to afford the R12,500 immediately – they were willing to discuss that. Mathunjwa went back to Lonmin’s office and tried to meet with the decision makers. They never bothered. Back to the Commission’s transcripts:
MR DA COSTA: The only demand from the strikers was that management come to the Koppie to talk about the R12,500.
MR BUDLENDER SC: Yes.
MR DA COSTA: There was no, I mean the only condition was that you come to the Koppie and come and talk about the R12,500.
MR BUDLENDER SC: Management set three preconditions: you’ve got to lay down your weapons – four preconditions; you’ve got to lay down your weapons, you’ve got to leave the Koppie, you’ve got to go back to work and you’ve got to speak to us through NUM, otherwise management wasn’t prepared to speak. That’s right?
MR DA COSTA: Those were the conditions that were laid down, yes….
MR BUDLENDER SC: NUM never said to you or suggested to you or implied to you that they would object to Lonmin talking directly to the strikers or their representatives.
MR DA COSTA: Ja, not as far as I know.
MR BUDLENDER SC: I want to put it to you that what Lonmin was really saying to the strikers on the Koppie was, we will speak to you only through people whom you don’t trust, whom you don’t trust. We will speak to you only through people with whom you are in violent physical conflict, we will speak to you only through people who we know you have an antagonism with and who don’t represent you and that in truth, the insistence on speaking to the strikers only through the NUM was entirely cynical because what Lonmin was really saying was, we won’t talk to you.
Mike Da Costa came across as a reasonably honest man caught between his employer’s intransigence and greed, and the violent expression of his employees’ anger and frustration at the structural violence imposed on them by both Lonmin and the state.
The next crucial voices to be heard will be human resources boss Barnard Mokwena, as well as then-Lonmin shareholder and director Cyril Ramaphosa appearing before the Commission next month. DM
Photo: Lonmin miners. (Greg Marinovich)
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