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


Daily Maverick Marikana

Marikana: A mining town on edge

Daily Maverick, 6 September 2012

Marikana was back in the news again on Wednesday; but then again, it never really left. At the scene of a protracted wage struggle between mineworkers and the world’s third-largest primary platinum producer, the stand-off continues and tensions keep rising around the town’s future. Yet the residents are surprisingly clear on where they stand. I took a walk through the streets of Marikana, and met some of those making their living in the area.

Marikana lies 24km east of Rustenburg. The town’s name is derived from the name of a nearby stream, Maretlani – itself named after a shrub indigenous to the area. The history books, jaundiced as they are, say the town of Marikana began life in the year 1870, but the Bapo people of Kgosi Mogale have longed called the area home. And today, Marikana makes the news as the scene of a protracted wage struggle between mineworkers and the world’s third-largest primary platinum producer.

As striking workers marched past the small clutch of shops in the centre of the town on Wednesday, stores rolled down their shutters and store employees stood aside watching wave after wave of striking workers pass by. “I’m on guard duty today,” a waitress at the KFC says. Her back is pinned against the door but she steps aside, allowing the latest batch of weary journalists through the door. Inside, a journalist sits in a corner, crouched over a computer. The unmistakeable stench of fried chicken hangs in the air, undisturbed by earnest mutterings of “human rights”, “testimony” and “interviews” from a scrum of journalists at the centre of the restaurant.

“Since the strike, the mineworkers are not coming here anymore,” another waitress confides sheepishly. “But the outsiders, now; it’s mostly the journalists and the police who are coming.”

Two doors away, the shutters at the Ellerines furniture store are half drawn, but the store is open. The striking workers have long since marched on to their usual meeting spot, some distance away. Still, two Ellerines employees stand at the door, just in case. A handwritten sign outside promises, “Buy now, pay in January 2013.” Inside, the store is empty except for a solitary man signing up for that January 2013 deal. Speakers nested in the ceiling belt out a catchy “treffer”. The Afrikaans pop is a meek follow-up to the songs of the strikers that had filled the street outside.

The credit manager of the store sits behind a desk. “I would say business has been down slightly but not significant enough to say it’s really been bad,” he says. “We really haven’t been affected by the strike.

“It’s just today that they came into town,” he adds. “Police told us to keep our doors closed because they didn’t know what (the strikers) were going to do.”

Across the road, construction continues on what appears to be a warehouse, or a shopping complex much like the one housing the Ellerines and KFC. It’s said construction sites are a sign of a healthy economy, a sure sign of economic growth – and at Marikana, the platinum mines certainly are an engine of economic growth. But this engine of growth is a precarious one; mines are not built to last. And in Marikana, the standoff between workers and Lonmin management has demonstrated just how tenuous is the survival of the mines. Experts have already warned that Lonmin must resume production this Friday, or face the closure of its high-cost operations. In Marikana, the survival of the town, in the short term at least, is tied to the prosperity of Lonmin’s operations in the area.

William Dlanga, a bus driver who works for a company contracted to Lonmin to transport workers, began working in Marikana two weeks ago. He’s holding out for a speedy resolution to the standoff, wary that “if the mine closes, people will become poor – very, very poor.”

Striking workers, however, have little sympathy for Lonmin, and they wave away speculation that the company is in danger of shutting down its Marikana operations. “It’s better if the mine closes. We’ll look for jobs at another mine,” a miner from the Karee mine says, as he leans against a wall in the commercial centre of the town.

Standing beside him, his friend, another miner from the Karee shaft, stresses the level of suffering endured by the mine workers during the strike. “Even our children are suffering,” he says. Neither of them reveal their names, but they are happy to pose for photographs. They say they are subsisting on the meagre salary paid to them for the ten days of work they did in August, but even as they recount their troubles, they reject any suggestion of a compromise.

“It will be a betrayal to those who died if we go back to work without R12,500.”

Walking away from the strikers’ meeting spot, a man carrying the strikers’ trademark stick pauses to ask what I’m doing in Marikana. After exchanging pleasantries, he reveals he’s not a mineworker at all. His expertise, he says, lies in plumbing. He joined the strikers’ march on Wednesday to help them pray for a speedy resolution to the strike. According to him, workers have delivered their final ultimatum to Lonmin. “Today it will be finished,” he predicts confidently. “We have prayed so much.”

Prayers, muti shops and loan sharks quite aside, there is one complaint among Marikana residents that is echoed across the country – poor service delivery. A group of men gather to speak about the challenges to life in Marikana. All of them are employed by Lonmin. All of them are on strike, even though none of them had actually joined the march on Wednesday. And though they, too, are holding firm on demands for R12,500, they too are unconcerned with talk of a possible closure of Lonmin’s operations in the area.  “Lonmin is a mine from London. They come here saying they are bringing international investment, but look at the way we live,” one man says, gesturing to the dirt road extending towards the informal settlement in the distance. “We have no roads, no lights, no water.”

Back outside the KFC, a group of police officers from Rustenburg have arrived from the meeting area to fill up on fried chicken. One officer in particular is warm, friendly, eager for conversation. So what’s the mood like among the police deployed in Marikana? Daily Maverick asks.

“Ah, I’d rather not comment,” he says as his colleagues return, their arms full of KFC. DM

Daily Maverick Marikana

Analysis: NUM – Rich history, unforgiving present

Daily Maverick, 5 September 2012

Towering over trains in Park Station in Johannesburg, a billboard advertising the 30th anniversary of the formation of the National Union of Mineworkers is a timely reminder of the history of the union. Sure, that history may be a proud one. But what’s the future?

“If we were a sweetheart union we would not have lasted until now,” National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) General Secretary Frans Baleni said at press briefing at its headquarters in Johannesburg on Tuesday. NUM had called the briefing to offer their perspective on peace talks at the Lonmin mine in Marikana, as well as the latest from the Gold Fields strike at KDC East. In between, Baleni and NUM president Senzeni Zokwana berated Julius Malema for taking advantage of unsuspecting mineworkers. And yet, increasingly, it’s Malema and not NUM that is being held up as the voice of the workers.

For NUM to be fighting Malema for a claim to its own members tells of a feeling of insecurity amongst NUM’s national leadership. If Malema, a person “expelled from his organisation for ill discipline”, as he was described by Baleni, is indeed just a political opportunist with a sudden appetite for mine workers’ issues, then NUM, as the single largest trade union in the history of the country, ought to be able to shake him off with ease. But they have not been able to just ignore him and get on with what they are supposed to – namely, represent mineworkers during an especially volatile time in the industry.

Yet if NUM is to be judged on its history, then it certainly does hold the rights of the mineworkers above politics or indeed its own survival. The significance of NUM as an agent for change was not limited to the mines alone. Remember, both Kgalema Motlanthe (or Dilemma Motlanthe, as he’s known in these parts) and Cyril Ramaphosa were both general secretaries for NUM. The union has been a nursery for political and business leadership. The union has also been an agent of social change – social change that outstrips the mines. The union’s history is linked intimately with the struggle for social transformation in the country.

And however incomplete that transformation may be, NUM finds itself today as the country’s largest union, greatly advantaged by a rich, proud history in a rapidly declining industry.

The formation of NUM in 1982 was the first successful formation of a “black” mining union since the African Mineworkers Union was mercilessly quashed by the state in a 1946 strike. Since its formation, NUM certainly has done a great deal to improve the lot of mineworkers in the country. There is a semblance of humanity, a grudging acceptance from mine owners that mine workers too are human beings.

Working by the motto, “Only the best for the mineworker”, NUM created opportunities for ordinary mineworkers to contribute to the decision-making processes of the union. And as the union grew, so too did its successes. The mineworkers’ provident fund, established in 1989, is reported to be worth more than R10 billion. In many ways, NUM is not just a union. It is a political force within the ruling tripartite alliance. It is also a business in its own right. But at the bottom of it all, it is as a union that must survive.

The fate of mines is, of course, precarious. Mines by their nature have to close at some point. But as long as the Earth continues to serve up minerals, mining remains a crucial tenet of the economy – and NUM retains its significance.

In recent years, it is the demand for platinum from emerging markets that has lent the South African mining industry a new lease of life. It’s no coincidence that the greatest concentration of NUM members is in Rustenburg, and it is then perhaps also not such a mystery that it is here, in the platinum belt, that the greatest challenge to NUM is being launched.

It is some feat that NUM has remained as united as it has been until now. But what we’ve seen in Amcu’s challenge to NUM in Marikana and in the litany of complaints levelled against branch leadership in the Gold Fields strike in Westonaria is a significant splintering of the union. There is a fundamental disconnect between union leaders and members, and events in Marikana and Westonaria demonstrate the inability of NUM to bridge that gap.

NUM may well still hold the rights and demands of workers at heart – though for a trade union they do show an astounding deference towards international investment and a rather curious fondness for a “return to normalcy” –  and despite the naysayers, they may well still be guided by what workers want. If indeed that is what they are trying to do, however, there has been a breakdown in communication within the union. Yes, it may be a function of social distance – the upper echelons of the union may be too prosperous to identify adequately with the ordinary miner – but it does also point to an erosion of the democratic culture of the union. Workers feel cut off from the decision-making structures, and that’s likely to pose a significant problem going forward.

NUM is itself aware of these challenges. On Tuesday, Baleni indicated that the union continued to research the attitudes of its members towards the leadership. And alongside Baleni, other senior officials of NUM conceded that there were weaknesses “at the branch level”. But even as these officials mull over how best to go forward, there is a growing impatience at that same branch level.

NUM has changed, as have the times.

And the impact of whatever happens to NUM, its success or failure to withstand these challenges, will not be restricted to the mining industry. It will be felt in the skulduggery of the ANC leadership battle, yes, but it will also point the way ahead for the rest of the country. After all, it’s not just within NUM that people feel like their leaders act without accountability to the people they are meant to serve. Whatever happens within NUM will foretell whether the government will be able to overcome its inability to communicate adequately, and to represent the needs of the people. DM

Daily Maverick Marikana

Gold Fields strike: With or without Malema, NUM’s credibility is at stake

Daily Maverick, 4 September 2012

Julius Malema, as self-appointed leader of the mining revolution, addressed striking workers at Gold Fields’ KDC East gold mine in Westonaria on Monday. He listened to grievances, made the right noises, and got a rousing welcome from an audience of thousands. 

Julius Malema was given a rousing welcome by striking workers at the KDC East mine on Monday. His anger, though, was significantly toned down and his message more conciliatory than it was in the Aurora last week. He did not invite workers over to the dark side of an ungovernable mining industry, but he did listen to the grievances of those who felt repressed by their employers and ignored by the branch leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

“Leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers should know that you can’t act for workers without consulting them, and don’t take workers for granted,” Malema said. And workers applauded him, passionately nodding in agreement.

The urban legend of Malema’s great power may well have received more support, but crucially, he was addressing a large group of workers who had grown dispirited with the opportunities available to them – opportunities to air complaints about any number of grievances, from the quality of food served to them, to suspicion that their union leaders are earning multiple salaries while the workers themselves feel their remuneration is inadequate.

“The leaders don’t respect us,” said one mineworker, who identified herself as “Zee”.

“They show us they don’t care about us,” said another worker, who identified himself as “Mac-Donald”.

As Malema spoke to to the miners, the news arrived that the Hawks’ investigation into his affair was being wrapped up and that he would soon face the justice system of South Africa. That must have distracted him somewhat.

Gold Fields, the world’s fourth largest gold producer, announced last week that miners at the KDC mine had been on strike since the start of a night shift on Wednesday, over a dispute related to an internal wrangle within a NUM branch. And on Monday morning, five days after the strike began – following assurances from NUM that everything had been resolved and that there was never an internal union dispute – NUM spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka admitted to Daily Maverick that the strike had remained unresolved because of differences between the branch leadership and workers.

It was an about-turn from Seshoka, who last week insisted that it was a disagreement about a funeral policy benefit only.

“Members did not want the mine to implement a compulsory funeral scheme; they want options,” Seshoka had explained.

While the strike may not be about the funeral benefit right now, it is, however, the funeral benefit that ignited the workers’ ire.

The funeral policy had originally been negotiated between NUM and the mine, and all category three to eight workers would have had R69 deducted from their salaries for the policy, regardless of whether they wanted it or not. It was also applicable to workers who belonged to other unions as well those who were unaffiliated. Workers first learned of this when they received their payslips last week, and according to Malema, workers had originally been told that only R39 would be deducted from their salaries for the benefit.

A number of striking workers told Daily Maverick that NUM had acted unilaterally – without consulting workers, or informing them about the benefit.

“They didn’t inform the people about the decision about the funeral policy,” one worker said.

“(NUM) leadership did not come when workers called, so people now want to choose their own leadership.”

According to Seshoka, mine management agreed to make the policy voluntary on Friday.

Gold Fields, however, has begged to differ.

Spokesman Sven Lunsche contends that the funeral policy issue was resolved on Wednesday already.

Photo: Although a core group of striking workers carried knobkerries, or tree branches the atmosphere at the strike, although angry was not threatening. (Khadija Patel/Daily Maverick)

The differing accounts of the timeline for the resolution of the funeral policy complaint is significant because it raises questions of the communication channels between the branch leadership and the NUM bigwigs in Johannesburg.

“The problem now is an issue between the workers and the (NUM) branch leadership,” Seshoka said. According to Seshoka, workers have levelled allegations of misconduct against the NUM leadership at KDC East, and insist that elections be held for workers to choose new membership. And workers certainly do have a litany of complaints against the NUM leadership at KDC East.

“They are giving us rotten food,” one worker complained passionately.

Another worker interrupted, saying a member of the NUM leadership at KDC East actually owned the catering company that supplied the food to workers.

“When we go to them to tell them about the food they tell us ‘Go away, go to your compounds,’” he said.

More than one worker also alleged that workers had been receiving what they termed “photocopied” payslips, claiming that the branch leadership was responsible for handing out counterfeit payslips to workers. Other workers alleged that their payslips arrived in unsealed envelopes, saying again that NUM officials were somehow responsible.

And then, to top it all, workers feel they are being cheated of better salaries by union officials who have put their own interests ahead of employees.

“The money workers are getting is too little,” Zee said.

Seshoka indicated that senior NUM officials were holding out for due process at the KDC mine. “What should happen is the (branch) leaders should be suspended and then the allegations should be investigated,” he said.

It is, however, a process that workers have little patience for. “The process is going to take too long,” Zee argued. “We want these people removed, effective immediately.”

Workers are hellbent on going forth with a vote of no confidence in their branch leadership and then proceeding with the election, but NUM does not appear to be inclined towards a compromise.

“We are hoping that the issue can be resolved between the branch leadership and the miners,” Seshoka said.

According to Gold Fields, some 12,000 employees are participating in the strike, scuppering the KDC East operation production of 1,660 oz a day. Already Gold Fields management has been granted an urgent interdict to bring what they describe as  “the unlawful and unprotected strike” to an end, but so far the interdict has been ineffective.

Lunsche has blamed the strike on a core group of between 1,000 and 2,000 workers, who he claims have been preventing their colleagues from going to work. In recent days, Gold Fields has repeatedly announced in statements that the strike is now a dispute among organised labour, and though the company claims to be doing all it can to help resolve the issue, it has placed the responsibility for the resolution of the strike firmly at NUM’s door.

Many workers, however, still feel that Gold Fields has a role to play in steering the strike towards a resolution.

“If management is saying it’s not their problem, then production is also not their problem,” said one miner, who refused to identify himself. “We want management to remove the current leadership.”

Emmanyel Seeiso, a pump supervisor, who works eight-hour shifts, six days a week, has a plan of action ready for mine management.

“Management must expel the (NUM branch) leadership,” he said. “And we can elect a temporary committee.”

In the meantime, Malema made his way to Westonaria on Monday, the latest pit stop in his mining revolution. Thus he continues to earn the wrath of senior NUM officials, who believe he is using the current tensions in the mining industry for his own benefit.

“We are very disappointed that people want to use a situation where deaths have taken place in the industry to revive their political careers,” he said. “What is happening in the mining industry is not only dangerous for the industry.”

Malema, however, countered the allegations of opportunism levelled against him by NUM, claiming that his attention to the mining industry was alive long before the massacre in Marikana.

“We don’t want to take advantage of our workers,” Malema said. “We are not starting (in the mines) today. We are not starting in Marikana. We have always been with the poor.”

And though Malema heard the grievances of the workers and told them more or less what they wanted to hear, when he left, workers milled around; many of them returned to their compounds while others stood, waiting expectantly. Malema has heard them; what now?

It is here, at the level of industrial unions stripped down to their branches, that ordinary workers experience their work, commitment and care. Or lack of it. And it is here that we may sense what lies in store for the business of trade unions in the rest of the country. And from the look and sound of what is happening at KDC East, there could be great tumult ahead. DM