Columns Daily Maverick Marikana

Stuck in the mud in Marikana

Thursday was not a good day to visit Marikana – particularly for us city folk. Too used to crouching over computers in air-conditioned offices from where we could better appreciate the first rains of the season, we headed out to the Wonderkop settlement in cars and vans laden with audiovisual equipment to find voices from the community. We ended up with cars that stubbornly refused to move on the muddy dirt roads. And knee-deep in grey sludge, wading through fields of litter in pursuit of a way out of there, we realised this community has to do deal with this all the time. So why not listen when they say they’ve had enough of it?

Leaving Johannesburg for the vast expanses of the North West on Thursday morning, talk radio bristled with the news that a peace accord had been reached in Marikana. Of course, there was still the little matter of AMCU signing on, but there was some hope that this Marikana thing would finally be getting solved. Jo’burg could go back to its unashamed schizophrenia and Marikana and the ugliness of the mining industry would recede into the margins of polite society.

But in Marikana, the much-trumpeted peace accord between the National Union of Mineworkers and Lonmin management that was said to have “levelled the ground for wage negotiations” and affirmed a “commitment to create a peaceful work environment” was inconsequential. To many, it was entirely unheard of.  The only peace settlement they will accept is a substantial salary hike. It’s little wonder then that nothing came of NUM’s optimism that the accord would be signed by both Amcu and other representatives of the workers later on Thursday.

It certainly is a high-stakes game.

For now, the stakes seem higher for Lonmin than it does for the workers. On Thursday, Lonmin reported that attendance across all its shafts was a paltry 1.65% on average. And rumours, the kind that emanate from the corridors of power in Johannesburg, reckon that Lonmin may well be closing down its smelting operations on Friday. And if workers do return to work shortly after Friday, it would still take another three weeks to get the smelting operation up again. It certainly does not bode well for the world’s largest primary platinum producer. Already Lonmin’s share value has suffered. And it may well have to shed a good few thousand jobs if its Marikana operations fall victim to the strike. Yes, Lonmin, its operations and interests are endangered by the strike, but focusing on their losses, the various effects of the strike on their bottom-line, misses the whole point of the strike – what it is workers want.

Every day since its operations in Marikana opened, Lonmin has got what it wants. Lonmin gets what it wants all the time. And if normalcy returns to Marikana before the end of September, Lonmin will go back to getting what it wants.

But what about these people, “Lonmin workers” as we’ve come to know them – people who, even in their protest against their employers, have no other public identity except through their employer? Why is it that what they want is so unrealistic? To deny that these people are entitled to shout, scream, dance and march in protest, is to deny that they, as adult human beings, hold the capacity to make choices for themselves.

And there we were, marooned in the mud and hail between the sites of the killings and the Wonderkop settlement. To the left, a scene of violence, just three weeks old and to the right, in the little cubes of zinc popping out of the Earth, another scene of violence – one much older, far more entrenched and too deeply embedded into the convenience of the status quo to make the news for longer than a few weeks at a time.

Yes, it is an indictment on the focus of the media that it took death, blood, guts and gore to bring us there, to search out the elusive voices, to acknowledge that the living conditions of mine workers in this country are abysmal. Sure, things are not quite as bad as they were in the 1980s, but they are far from that lauded ideal of “decency” that lies beneath the daily political spectacle.

Journalists eventually extricated themselves from the grey sludge. With mic in hand, before a camera placed strategically opposite from the informal settlement, muddied, harried, dirtied, we soon readied ourselves to regale the world with the latest from Marikana. But for the mineworkers who must daily negotiate the hazards of those dirt roads – to get to work, to go to school, or to take a piss on the granite koppies – that mud is the bane of their existence. And trying to walk through it, trying to just lift one leg and then the other to gather a stride to take you out of there, is like carrying a load of bricks – it feels impossible to move. And for some, maybe it is. DM


Columns Daily Maverick

Malema steals the show, all over again

Daily Maverick, 25 May 2012  – 

In commemoration of Africa Day, Unisa hosted the 3rd annual Thabo Mbeki lecture on Thursday night. Four former African presidents discussed the politics of development, but the real story of the night sat in the front row. Julius Malema, in a red T-shirt sporting the face of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, seemed especially to enjoy the thinly veiled barbs against the current ANC leadership.  

When I decided to be a “real” journalist, one who is paid for shifting words around on a page, I was determined to tell the stories South African media missed. I was determined to tell the stories that prove to South Africans we are not as unique as we think we are, our problems are not exceptional. I was determined to tell stories that placed South Africa within the context of a whole world. Most of all, I was determined not to chase after Julius Malema.

There were far too many journalists who seemed to have already devoted their lives to running after every soundbite he dished out. I understood his appeal. I understood the threat he presented to South Africa, but I was fed up with the bluster about Malema. In between the charge to the next scandalous Malema headline I sought to tell the stories of the Arab Spring – stories that had great store for South Africans well beyond its impact on the price of petrol.

And for the most part I’ve managed to stay true to my ambitions. I still write stories of the Arab Spring – it is so much more than a seasonal change in regional temperatures. I’ve even tried to tell the stories of Africa as a continent with plural identities, plural challenges and plural promises. I’ve tried to locate South Africa’s place in the world through the caprice of its international relations. And except for isolated brushes with stories on the periphery of the Malema circus, I’ve been able to keep away from the maddening world of the young lions.

It has been some time since the young lions were left to lick their wounds on the margins of polite society. Replacing them these last two weeks has been a great flap about a bad painting. There is more to this world than a South African president with a mortally wounded ego. Removing my head from the gigantic tin of paint then, I sought to find out how the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi would be received when he delivered the annual Thabo Mbeki lecture at the University of South Africa.

On my way into the ZK Matthews Great Hall, I met Ethiopian refugees from the Ogaden, Ethiopia’s factious Somali region, who had travelled to Pretoria to heckle Zenawi and if they could, slip in a question or two about his authority to speak on such a revered platform. I was eager to find out how Zenawi would react. I was equally eager to find out how Mbeki would explain his implicit endorsement of a man with a rather chequered human rights record.

Yet, even before Brigalia Bam announced Zenawi had not made it, citing urgent work at home, the show was stolen by Julius Malema. Dressed in a red Zanu-PF shirt proudly sporting the face of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Malema’s entrance into the hall was greeted by a raucous cheer. After a few moments of bewilderment, I realised people were actually cheering for Malema. Accompanied by his full team of sidekicks, Floyd Shivambu, Sindiso Magaqa and Magdalene Moonsamy, Malema’s reception was rivalled only by Mbeki’s.

When speakers acknowledged the presence of deputy minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom, who is also the chairman of the disciplinary committee that kicked Malema out of the ANC, the atmosphere suddenly turned hostile. There were noisy jeers. And yet every time Malema moved from his seat, the crowd cheered warmly, chanting “Juju”. And though Malema knew well the statement he was making by attending the event, he shrugged off the cheers, trying his best to look the part of a simple audience member – albeit one in the pound seat.

And just like that, I became the journalist I promised myself I never would be. I chased Malema throughout the night, noting his reaction throughout the speeches and the ensuing discussion. After an opening address in which former Unisa principal Barney Pityana, lambasted the ANC leadership for “institutionalised mediocrity” after the enactment of what he termed the “Polokwane revolution”, Malema guffawed with laughter, elbowing his friend beside him to share his mirth.

`As Pityana continued to slate the ANC leadership for a lack of intellect, a lack of moral fibre and indulging its penchant for self-interest, Malema shared in the laughter, clearly enjoying the ANC’s public pasting.

And yet, was he not aware of the irony of his being there, gleefully enjoying Zuma’s fall in popularity as he once did Mbeki’s? The entire event was the antithesis of the song and dance that usually accompanies Zuma. This, after all, was an Mbeki event – where the idea of “Africa” is more wholesome, a little more tangible and where the speakers quote Plato.

As I chased Malema through the crowds, I found him conveniently speaking to an SABC reporter. “This is the kind of intellectual debate we have been missing,” he said, adding it was a fitting way to mark Africa Day.

We may sneer in derision as much as we want, Malema seems to be as popular as ever. And if the audience reaction to Pityana’s diatribe against the ruling party was anything to go by, Zuma is extremely unpopular.

As Malema disappeared into the crowd, I packed my camera and computer away a little wiser about the irrepressible appeal of Malema and that painting. It’s not them alone – it’s what they represent, the common sense that so dangerously threatens the way things are, the darned status quo. DM

Columns Daily Maverick

Don’t touch us on our xenophobia

Daily Maverick, 16 March 2012 – 

On Thursday President Jacob Zuma’s special envoy to Nigeria, minister of correctional services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, deployed to further communicate South Africa’s regret, had to fend off allegations of a South African state bias against Nigeria. She also conveyed some bad news to the Nigerians – South Africa would not compensate the Nigerian deportees for their ordeal.

“The issue of compensation is out of the question. We don’t understand why South Africa will have to compensate the deportees,” she said. “We believe that it is enough that we have come out and apologised. It is enough that we have demonstrated our goodwill to the government of Nigeria. It is enough that the President has sent a special envoy to reiterate his commitment to the bilateral relationship with Nigeria.”

South Africans were justifiably embarrassed by government’s grovelling. Deputy minister of international relations and cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim cut a rather desperate figure when he reiterated South Africa’s apology to Nigeria at a media briefing. Like a jilted lover begging for another chance, South Africa seemed all too ready to bow and scrape before Nigeria. Aubrey Masango, writing here onDaily Maverick echoed the sentiments of many South Africans when he expressed his disgust at the manner in which Ebrahim had apologised. Friends at Dirco have taken particular exception to Masango’s assertion that their department “is run by a bunch of ‘unevolved’ primates”.

And with good reason too. The more primal reaction to continuing expressions of Nigerian aggression towards South Africa would be to shun the West Africans with haughty indifference. And while Justice Malala writing in The Times on Tuesday – doubtlessly also affected by the severe bout of Mbeki nostalgia going around the country – believed the entire fracas to be a sign of the immaturity of our leaders: neither Goodluck Johnathan nor Jacob Zuma match up to the diplomacy of Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo, South Africa’s apology does show some maturity. And the restraint that senior government officials displayed in the face of severe provocation from their Nigerian counterparts must also be commended.

Barney Mthombothi writing in The Financial Mail bristles with jingoistic fervour when he says, “Such a sycophantic apology is an affront to our honour”. Jingoistic fervour quite aside, we can ill afford to have Nigeria as an enemy. Mapisa-Nqakula’s exasperated response to the Nigerian media on Thursday may well signal the conclusion of South Africa’s expression of profound regret. Despite the apology and government’s best efforts to brush aside the whole sordid affair, many South Africans, outside of the hallowed corridors of government, fail to realise the severity of Nigeria’s anger.

Last Saturday, the Nigerian minister of foreign affairs, Olugbenga Ashiru, told Channels TV, “I will… ensure that any country that maltreats Nigerians will be hit back.” This was two days after the South African apology, two days after South Africa and Nigeria had purportedly committed to strengthening their bilateral relations. This was a very angry man. He went on to accuse South Africa of rampant “xenophobia”, saying South Africans are themselves aware of their xenophobic tendencies.

Don’t touch us there, sir.

Yes, this is South Africa – land of beguiling beauty and abode of blinding antagonism towards foreign nationals. They are the “makwerekwere”, cloistered in the margins of formal society where they compete with the poorest South Africans to eke out a menial living. And yet this antagonism towards foreign nationals is not restricted to the so-called xenophobic hotspots where localised competition for political and economic power is a trigger for violence. The rest of us may not be setting suspected Zimbabweans alight a la Diepsloot, but we fail to understand the anger of the Nigerians because we fail to confront our own suspicion of foreigners, particularly of African foreigners.

Last month, Western Cape provincial police commissioner Arno Lamoer bemoaned the number of foreign nationals arriving in Cape Town. He was, of course, not referring to the American backpackers paying their way through Cape Town by waiting tables at Cape Town’s more swanky spots. His was a diatribe, neatly presented in Microsoft Powerpoint, against the rising numbers of African migrants in Western Cape. “If you see the influence of foreign nationals in Western Cape, you will be shocked,” Lamoer told MPs, proceeding to invite them to take a trip with him to the Bellville railway station. “You will see what it looks like there with foreign nationals – and it’s only Somalians(sic) we have in that [Bellville] area.”

Alive to the lure of the bucks to be made in Africa’s rising, there has been great emphasis on the mobility of goods, capital and communication in Africa. While we have failed so far to offer the same attention to better facilitating the movement of people, especially migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers throughout the continent, there is also a need, in South Africa particularly, to address the suspicions of African migrants.

We suffer from a crippling sense of political panic that has been seeded by the belief that the socioeconomic burden created by the influx of African migrants is unsustainable. We have come to perceive foreigners, especially black foreigners, as a direct threat to our future economic health. It’s not just Western Cape where foreigners are blamed for violent crime. It’s become South African common sense, an ideology, to hold foreigners responsible for the surge in violent crime in South Africa. And even as we take advantage of the Malian tailors on Long Street, we bemoan the arrival of yet more immigrants.

The most recent amendments to the Immigrations Act, in March 2011, prohibit the use of immigration agents and quota work permits, both of which have historically been widely used by South African companies seeking to employ foreign highly skilled workers. It has become exceedingly difficult for a foreigner, even skilled foreign workers, to find work locally. All this while the country is said to be stymied from a severe shortfall of skilled workers.

We’re afraid foreigners may take up the jobs meant for South Africans, but this sense of competition for scarce resources against millions of illegal immigrants has become the motivation for stricter control of illegal immigrants.

Lest we forget, many South Africans are inadvertently caught up in this paranoia.

Passop, the Cape Town based NGO dedicated to fighting the cause of foreign migrants in South Africa, reports on the case of University of Western Cape student Jainudien Sablay. He was walking to a shop in Rylands earlier this week, accompanied by his father, when they were stopped by a member of the SAPS Special Task Force and home affairs’ immigration department. “When they asked for identification, he provided his student card and ID number, but they rejected it, calling him Pakistani,” Passop says. Jainudien’s father rushed home to retrieve another form of identification but in the meanwhile some 40 police officers and immigration officers are said to have physically and verbally intimidated Jainudien, before violently throwing him into the back of a police van. The irony: the Sablay family trace their roots in Cape Town back to the 1800s. “If this could happen to him, it could happen to anyone,” Passop says.

There may well be a good many Nigerians with similar stories to share. The dictionary defines “xenophobia” as a “hatred or fear of foreigners”. But in South Africa we understand it as a “dislike of foreigners”. It is the default position too many of us assume, a negative attitude towards foreigners, a dislike, a fear, a hatred. It is a sense of intense tension directed at foreigners. Too often we fail to interrogate the consequences of this attitude. When a police chief says, “An estimated 8,000 a month are flowing into the province,” he communicates the impression of an uncontrollable, unstoppable process. He invokes the imagery of an unrelenting wave that renders South Africans powerless. And yet it is the foreigners among us who must negotiate their way through our national neurosis. The Nigerian foreign minister lived in South Africa as a foreigner. He speaks from experience. DM