A decade ago, post-apartheid South Africa produced its first apartheid-style massacre of black people. It remains a sore wound and an albatross to the government that is led by a former anti-apartheid movement – the Marikana massacre, where striking miners were brutally mowed down by police with live ammunition, leaving 34 miners dead.
What had started off as a wage impasse between miners and their employer, Lonmin, spiralled out of control and grew into a violent protest where 10 people died within a space of two days. This upped the ante. Tensions rose. Reasoning was ravaged like a dead carcass being feasted upon by vultures.
On one fateful day in August, tensions became worse when police were steadfast in dispersing the striking workers from the koppie where they had gathered. The result was a gruesome scene flighted by various newscasters. People were wiped out. To this day, Marikana remains a disgrace in the history of democratic South Africa. The killing of the mine workers further entrenched the belief that businesses put profits before the interests of workers.
My recollection of the Marikana strike is not only for its gruesome outcome but for what I observed throughout the period the strike was taking place – that of the shining absence of government intervention that could have easily averted the fateful outcome.
The Marikana tragedy was a labour dispute left for too long. When the first acts of violence were taking place, the Ministry of Labour (now called Ministry of Employment and Labour) did not rise to the occasion to quell the situation. In fact, the then-incumbent Minister, Mildred Oliphant, was nowhere to be seen. Her office was dormant, a state that lasted for her nine-year tenure. Such absence led to external parties interfering and (intentionally or not) fuelling the situation by calling the strike an “act of criminality” that needs “concomitant action”. Even post the killing of mineworkers, the Minister of Labour was still nowhere to be seen.
One might ask, was ending the strike the responsibility of the Department of Labour, and not that of the employer, the unions and bargaining council? I am compelled to respond and say when the strike was prolonged and started showing signs of violence, the department should have come in and assisted with some form of mediation. At the time, the situation had reached the Newtonian paradox of “an immovable object meeting an irresistible force” and so an intervention was necessary.
Unless we learn from history, we might have another Marikana brewing before us with the current prolonged miners’ strike at Sibanye Gold.
Daily I watch news reports about the strike and hear of its longevity. At the time of writing, reports indicated that the strike is now entering its third month. Three months in and the Ministry of Employment and Labour is sleeping on a brewing Marikana.
Mediating too late?
This might sound like an alarmist expression, but it is not. The Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy has jumped into the fray to try and be a mediator to this impasse. While this is applauded, the questions remain: had the President’s safety not been compromised during his May Day address, where Sibanye miners were booing him and seen to be running towards the stage where he was standing, was the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy going to be bothered?
The May Day rally booing of the President and storming of the field by miners running towards the stage could have easily given us an incident that would have been a prelude to another mine massacre. Let us not forget that the Marikana strike turned violent when workers stormed their union offices, and they were shot at. This raised tensions and powered “retaliation”.
The absence of Minister Thulas Nxesi and his ministry in this three-month labour dispute leaves much to be desired, just like that of his predecessor, Mildred Oliphant.
It might be peaceful at Sibanye, but for how long? When will Nxesi learn to wake from his slumber and attend to employment and labour issues? It took the EFF harassing restaurant owners in an “oversight visit” for the minister to speak out and declare “that is not your duty but that of my ministry”. His absence in the portfolio and that of his officials has seen the rise of self-styled “pro-jobs” demigods to wreak havoc.
In no time, tyres might start burning at Sibanye, then stones get thrown and in a typical South African crowd-control situation, someone will use live ammunition. Then, guess what? Minister, like the soothsayer who decried “beware the Ides of March”, I am sounding a warning: “in your slumber, beware another Marikana.” DM