South Africa

The Buffalo Prince and the Marikana Commission

By Greg Nicolson 11 August 2014

Two years ago on Monday, Lonmin workers marched on the NUM and were fired upon by union members, starting a spiral of violence that ended in the Marikana massacre. On Monday, NUM founding general secretary and current Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa testified on his role in the murky collaboration between Lonmin and politicians. The 'buffalo prince' survived, steadfast and resolute, but human after all. By GREG NICOLSON.

“Khau ba buze, ba thethe inyane,” hum the injured and arrested mineworkers as photographers huddle around the door waiting for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. An Economic Freedom Fighters member hands out T-shirts with the visage of a buffalo’s head on it.

“Buffalo!”

“Buffalo head!” yells someone in the Commission, as Ramaphosa enters. He takes his oath and they don’t believe him.

“He doesn’t believe in God,” says an activist.

Ramaphosa was testifying at the inquiry into the deaths of 44 people in Marikana during the labour unrest of August 2012. At the time, he was a shareholder, non-executive director of Lonmin and chair of their transformation committee. He has since become the focus point for allegations that ANC politicians, its National Union of Mineworker (NUM) allies and Lonmin pressured the police to end the strike with force, pushing the SAPS to the brink of slaughtering 34 protestors on 16 August 2012.

He sits in the Commission wearing a black suit, two-toned red tie, and white shirt with French cuffs and cufflinks. Behind him sits his wife, a seat between her and the bodyguards either side. Security has been increased for his appearance.

Advocate David Unterhalter leads his evidence in chief. Ramaphosa puts on his glasses and chuckles as the throng of lawyers discuss exhibit numbers. He’s asked about the emails between himself and Lonmin and the contact he had with ministers Nathi Mthethwa, police, and Susan Shabangu, mineral resources. According to Dali Mpofu, representing the injured and arrested protesters, Ramaphosa was one layer in the conduit of pressure between management, politicians and police that led to killing protesters.

Ramaphosa, however, describes his communication as benevolent. His Shanduka representative at Lonmin told him of the protests and killings. He relayed that to Mthethwa and Shabangu and set up a meeting with the NUM. It wasn’t a labour dispute but a criminal situation, he says, and he requested increased police presence to prevent further loss of life.

Marikana was in large part due to the earlier protest in 2012 at Impala, where rock drill operators led a successful, if violent, strike, and when Ramaphosa saw what was happening at Lonmin he looked at what the workers were being paid. The differential compared with other companies was stark. The offer of a bonus wouldn’t solve the problem, he figured. But when things got violent, the situation changed, he says. First and foremost was safety; then they could discuss wages. The protest wasn’t a labour issue, it was a criminal one, he says, taking Lonmin’s line.

“I felt duty-bound and had to help,” says Ramaphosa. “The way the people were being killed, the brutality thereof, I concluded this is a dastardly criminal acts. They are horrific. They are terrible and I couldn’t find a better way of describing it when someone is killed and their body parts are cut out of their bodies, some parts of their limbs are cut out; I couldn’t find any better way of describing it. To me it was quite horrific.”

He tried to convince Shabangu to see the strike not as a labour dispute. He told Mthethwa his concerns. He “realised we were dealing with people bent on killing other people”. In an email to Lonmin’s acting head at the time, Albert Jamieson, he said, “They are plainly dastardly criminal[s] and must be characterised as such.” He called for “concomitant action”, “containing the situation” and to “act correctly”. All of those, he explains, are calls on the police to identify and arrest those who had killed to avoid further deaths.

“No, I did not at any time seek to prescribe what kind of action [police] should take except what I saw as doing their duties.” Lonmin executives asked him to relay the info to government and he obliged. He had the phone numbers; they didn’t; Ramaphosa could do it. He did so to prevent further violence, he stresses, again and again.

Cyril Ramaphosa was the prince who might save South Africa. He was instrumental in building NUM at a time when the Apartheid government was wary of the potential power of trade unions. He helped negotiate democracy, was there when the hallowed Constitution was drafted. When the transition threatened to fall apart, he was in the team that kept it on track. Famously, he was Nelson Mandela’s favourite to be the second president of democratic SA. It never happened. Instead, he became one of the country’s richest citizens and then returned to state politics as deputy to Jacob Zuma, a man who 20 years ago wasn’t in Ramaphosa’s league.

“Buffalo prince,” laughs the EFF member. “He’s funny.” Ramaphosa is steadfast, laughs when he needs to, and never deviates from his stated position. The cross-examiners want to poke holes in his version.

greg-ramaphosa McCyril

Photo: A man seen with a T-shirts bearing the words  “McCyril the killer” while attending the Farlam Commission of Inquiry in Centurion on Monday, 11 August 2014 where Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was testifying. Picture: SAPA stringer

First is evidence leader Geoff Budlender. The workers didn’t trust the NUM, the union and employees have admitted that, yet Lonmin told them to drop their weapons and go through the recognised union? It wasn’t a board decision, says Ramaphosa, admitting that companies need to be flexible, do whatever they can to end a strike. AMCU was consulted as an afterthought, only at the last minute, and then they were basically told to tsek.

The allegations of political influence are linked to NUM. In the infamous transcript between Lonmin vice president for human resources Bernard Mokoena and North West Provincial Police Commissioner Zukiswa Mbombo, the two reference the need not to sideline the NUM and avoid Julius Malema gaining traction in the area.

Ramaphosa clasps his hands on the table, as if in prayer. No, it’s not right to favour one union over another and organise police on that basis. No, Malema can’t be a motive for taking a specific response to a strike.

Second is Tembeka Ngcukaitobi from the Legal Resources Centre, representing some family members of the victims. He points out Ramaphosa’s indirect contribution to the unrest. As chair of Lonmin’s transformation committee, Ramaphosa was tasked with monitoring the company’s social development plans and during his tenure had told the media that unrest was largely due to the legacy of the migrant labour system and inhumane living conditions of miners. Yet in 2011 he seemed to accept that Lonmin had abandoned a five-year plan to build 5,500 houses for miners because of financial pressures created by the global financial crisis. The company, meanwhile, only built three of the planned homes, show units, despite the boom years before the financial crisis hit. The issues are more complex than presented at the Commission, but the effect was that Ramaphosa, through Lonmin’s failure, is indirectly responsible for what happened and has failed in his role as a former representative of workers.

“I would categorise that as a success. I would categorise that as a work in progress,” says Ramaphosa.

“He’s lying,” a voice from the audience shouts. Minutes later, a protest erupts.

“Ramaphosa has blood on his hands,” yells a leader of the Democratic Left Front. “Blood on his hands, blood on his hands,” others join in.

“Buffalo, buffalo, buffalo…”

Commission chairman Ian Farlam walks out. Bodyguards move to flank Ramaphosa. Mpofu asks the protestors to let the Commission resume.

“As long as he knows he has blood on his hands,” yells one. “He’s a sell-out, this man. He sold out the revolution.” Ramaphosa stands nonplussed, picking at his teeth.

Dumisa Ntsebeza, representing the families of the killed mineworkers, is next to take a shot at Ramaphosa. He makes a few clear points. Ramaphosa, the unionist, should have known calling for police action, the continued and increased presence of hundreds of officers, would have caused more violence, especially after two officers were killed on 13 August. Yet he called for more. He’s evasive in his answer. Lonmin executives’ push to characterise the strike as criminal, which Ramaphosa was tasked to convince ministers Mthethwa and Shabangu of, looks like an attempt to break the strike with force so Lonmin wouldn’t have to negotiate. Jamieson linked the police response to resuming work; it’s hard to see it any other way, and Ramaphosa was the perfect conduit. He was only trying to save lives, he says.

Ntsebeza says, “It really goes without saying, you are a skilled negotiator, you are a skilled mediator, you are a strategist.” Ramaphosa plays it down. The deputy president says he was only in the position to relay information and couldn’t have done anything more as a non-executive director. “This was what one could call a perfect storm that had evolved. AMCU was saying they are not involved so, in a way, abdicated. The CEO of Lonmin had taken ill and was not on the spot to negotiate. NUM itself was not really involved. We have heard that the workers had lost confidence in the NUM. As a non-executive director, not involved in the management of the company, I relied on the management team to deal with these matters.”

Ntsebeza finished by criticising Ramaphosa’s commitment to black economic empowerment. Despite his former position as a BEE Commission chair, he has an all-white legal team.

The Commission laughs.

“Oh, are we done?” asks Ramaphosa.

He will be back on Tuesday. On Monday, he remained resolute despite being called a murderer and being questioned on acting on both his political and business bias. There are a few takeaways from the day. Ramaphosa was biased towards the NUM and Lonmin. He acted in their favour. He never thought of intervening as he could have, given his knowledge of labour disputes, his links to all the parties and his negotiating skills. Instead he perpetuated and constructed the idea that the strike was only criminal, ignoring the aspects of labour relations that ultimately ended the strike.

On Tuesday, Dali Mpofu, representing the injured and arrested mineworkers, will argue that Ramaphosa’s bias, his allegiance to who he was serving, was fatal. It was the pressure that seeped down through the state to the police, angry at the death of their colleagues, promoted and legitimised the enacting of a terrible plan with terrible timing, and led the police to kill mineworkers in cold blood.

“Buffalo head, buffalo head,” protestors chant as Ramaphosa’s convey prepare to leave. “Cyril’s a dog, Cyril’s a dog.” DM

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (surrounded by bodyguards) seen at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry in Centurion, Pretoria on Monday, 11 August 2014 where he was testifying. Picture: SAPA stringer

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