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18 March 2018 08:10 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paul Berkowitz

Tinkering with the great machine: how do we get the society we want?

  • Paul Berkowitz
    Paul Berkowitz

    Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

Dozens of men die at one of the world’s largest platinum mines. A community activist receives personal and intimate threats in Yeoville. Is the connection between the two only in my mind? Maybe, but indulge me a little bit. I’m trying to make a point here. 

The violence at Marikana on Thursday afternoon that claimed 34 lives wasn’t the boiling over of an unwatched pot. That would suggest that the deaths of 10 men at the mine earlier in the week were within our society’s heat tolerances. This was closer to the rupturing of a boil; some of the blood and muck festering below the surface has oozed out but there’s a lot more where it came from still below the surface.  

While our sad, skid-marked laundry is busy airing on CNN and the BBC the speculation and finger-pointing has begun. It wuz the unions what done it, with their irresponsible and criminal demands. It wuz the mine management what done it, with their Machiavellian hands-off approach to union-on-union violence. It wuz the police what done it, through ill-discipline, a thirst for vengeance and a culture of operating with impunity. It wuz Mangaung what done it, turning comrades against each other and leading them to create third forces while climbing the greasy pole. 

I am not here to point fingers or apportion blame. The stories behind this tragedy are still to be told and anyway, I’m not a real investigative reporter. I’m therefore reluctant to form a strong opinion based on my interpretation of second-hand information. That shouldn’t stop the more opinionated among you from using the comments page to flog your particular hobby-horse to death; comment is free and free things are normally worth what you pay for them. We don’t believe in the labour theory of value here at the Maverick.

More seriously, there are some very good summaries of the whole mess out there. It doesn’t appear that there are many, if any, heroes in this story. There are some important questions that are being asked but not guarantees of answers. 


Maurice Smithers is a community activist who has lived for decades in Yeoville Bellevue. My partner and I moved to the area about three years ago. I know of Maurice because he is involved in many of the community’s initiatives, including a regular community newspaper which is produced with little to no subsidy.

A few weeks ago, Maurice received a lengthy SMS. It addressed him by name and also listed the names of some of his family members. The SMS sender clearly felt threatened by the work of the community structures in addressing illegal shebeens, illegal dumping and other illegal behaviour. The threat of violence to Maurice and his family in the SMS was as explicit as it gets. 

Yeoville Bellevue, like Marikana, has a healthy supporting cast of rogues and scapegoats. For many years the suburb has been home to immigrants from the rest of the continent. They’re obviously to blame, being economic transients with no firm stake in building social and community structures that see the enforcement of the law as a limitation of their way of life. The home-grown South Africans running shebeens and car repair shops in flagrant violation of the by-laws are clearly at fault, happy to live in more manicured suburbs and profit at the expense of Yeoville Bellevue residents. And, of course, the area’s police are to blame, as so many of them are in the pockets of the criminals. 

Any of these usual suspects could have sent the SMS to Maurice. All of them stood to lose from the rule of law being upheld. But let me take my tongue from my cheek and also relate the subsequent outpouring of outrage at the SMS and support from Maurice from church elders, ward councillors (DA and ANC; the Yeoville Bellevue area is served by two from each party), community leaders and many other residents who share Maurice’s vision. There is a battle going on in my little suburb and it’s not clear which side is winning. 

Yeoville Bellevue, like Marikana, is a place where the rule of law is negotiable and the police are not to be trusted. It is a place where everything is permissible and violence is seen as an effective negotiating strategy. 

On a biting Saturday morning, two days after the tragedy at Marikana, about 120 Yeoville Bellevue residents marched through the streets to protest against the criminal element that has operated with impunity. They marched against the violence that their neighbours are threatened with simply because they are trying to build a law-abiding community in which they can raise their children. They also marched against the lack of support from the official political structures that are supposed to serve them and the collapse of the community policing forum under dubious circumstances. 

Yeoville Bellevue is not Marikana, and my link may seem tenuous and touched by egomania. This is what people do; they try to make sense out a tragedy by relating it to their personal experience. We may empathise with the workers, the unions, the company or the police, but most of us have chosen our victims and we are trying to feel their pain. 


In Marikana and Yeoville Bellevue the state is not able, currently, to enforce the rule of law. Worse, the apparatus of the state (the national and local police forces) may be complicit in undermining that rule of law. The reasons for why this is happening are varied.

I repeat that I’m not writing this to score points or to push an agenda. I’m not advocating for the privatisation of the police and only an ideologue could find comfort in delivering a superior diagnosis while others are being butchered. But it is important that we correctly name our common problems and find consensus on where we go from here as a country. 

The failures in Marikana and Yeoville Bellevue are failures of social systems and institutions. In Marikana it’s quite possible that the newer union took its cues from the behavioural patterns of more established unions. These include the promise of unrealistic benefits to striking members and strikes characterised increasingly by violence and destruction of property. The police have become used to operating with impunity; until recently the independent regulator of police behaviour lacked teeth and the ability to make binding or punitive judgments. We will see if the involvement of Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the ICD’s successor, will shed any more light on what’s happening at Marikana.

It is an interesting phenomenon in behavioural economics that peoples’ choices and decision-making processes are significantly influenced by their environments and by the framing of the choices available to them, and far less so by any intrinsic values system they purport to have. In a glass-half-empty way this explains how South Africans behave, with our low levels of social cohesion, history of successful rent-seeking by special interests and compromised law enforcement system. It’s not surprising that we have little respect for the law or concern for each other’s rights.

Is there reason to believe in a glass that’s half-full? People like the activists in my neighbourhood give me cause for hope. Rationally, their expected payoff for doing what they does is lower than if they did almost anything else, given the uphill battles with corrupt police and unaccountable politicians. There are some economists who think that the phrase “social capital” is a synonym for the Tooth Fairy; that it’s an ephemeral, immeasurable fable of a thing. I have no other way of explaining the flood of support that the broader community has demonstrated in the last two weeks. 

Another optimistic take on the status quo is that people are not the institutions they belong to. Labour unions are neither intrinsically good nor bad. They are legal, even necessary, structures that exist to advance their members’ interests. Given the power and ability to extract rents from the rest of society they will do their best to extract those rents. If they are able to act outside the law with impunity then that’s what they’ll do. 

Big business, in bed with big government, has the license to trample on the property rights of the poor and defenceless. Marikana itself is not the best example of this; the economics of platinum mining is a tragedy in itself and I’m not prejudging Lonmin for the events of the past week. However, important questions have been asked about the details of Lonmin’s BEE deal with the Bapo community in the Northwest. Our current institutions, including the unhealthy and unholy relationship between the business and political elite, have been used to screw very poor people out of their property. 

It happened because it could; it happened because the incentives are very big and the risk of punishment (real or perceived) is low. 

The corollary of this is that if incentives and structures are reformed appropriately it’s possible to see significant behavioural changes in society. If the probability of by-law enforcement was high, there would be fewer shebeens in Yeoville Bellevue. If unions became financially liable for strike-related violence they wouldn’t whip up their supporters in a cynical game of brinkmanship with business. If union bosses could face incitement charges they might pause before whipping up their dues-paying members so cynically and irresponsibly. If CEOs carried personal liability for the sins of their companies and faced possible jail time (along the lines of the German legal system) then it’s possible, for example, that the Pioneer bosses would have thought twice before entering into a bread cartel and gouging the poor with high prices. 

The bad news is that the necessary institutional reforms, like educational reform, aren’t going to come from the state. It’s even been suggested that some members of the alliance may be behind the strike violence because it profits them to undermine NUM. If we want to live in a better society then we’re going to have to take a leaf out of my neighbours’ book and build it ourselves. DM

  • Paul Berkowitz
    Paul Berkowitz

    Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

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