SA’s beleaguered government continues its security crackdown in Marikana, with the South African National Defence Force announcing that it deployed 1,000 soldiers to the restive mining town in the North West. But even as President Zuma attempted – not very successfully – to allay fears about government’s respect for civil liberties, it was the South African Council of Churches on the ground at Marikana, helping workers apply for permission to march.
“It seems as if both government and Lonmin misread the situation on the platinum belt, and now what seemed resolvable might become an untenable situation,” Bishop Jo Seoka, president of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) said in a statement released by the Bench Marks Foundation on Saturday. Against the backdrop of teargas, rubber bullets and a noxious cocktail of fear and hatred among striking workers and residents in Marikana, Sekoa’s warning of an “untenable situation” was further strengthened by confirmation from the South African National Defence Force that troops had indeed been deployed to Marikana.
“The soldiers were deployed at the request of the police to support them in their operation,” SANDF spokesman Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga is reported by Sapa to have said. According to Mabanga, the soldiers in Marikana hail from the air force, the army and the military health services. And as South Africans react with alarm to the scale of the security presence in Marikana, Sekoa believes the government’s most recent attempts to assert control over the striking workers threatens the gains made in negotiations.
“I am concerned that all the hard work around the peace accord, the negotiations with Lonmin and the rock drillers, where we were making a lot of progress, might now come to an abrupt end,” he said. According to him, the reaction of both government and Lonmin has been hampered by a lack of understanding of the underlying problem.
“Workers, whether in Lonmin or Amplats, have legitimate grievances – grievances that go back years – that have now come to the surface. I know that it is not instigators that are driving the work stoppages, but genuine issues of absolute poverty, lack of respect for workers in the economy and how they contribute to the overall development of the country,” Sekoa said.
Sekoa is also chairperson of the Bench Marks Foundation, but it is in his role as president of the SACC that he has come to the fore in Marikana. And yet just a few months ago, detractors from within the SACC had predicted the untimely demise of the organisation. It is exactly this sort of critical take on Marikana, which the SACC has taken in recent weeks through Sekoa, that many predicted the organisation was no longer capable of. In March this year, dissidents within the organisation told the Mail & Guardian that the organisation’s “strategic capability to be critical has been depleted”. According to these disgruntled insiders, the SACC no longer enjoyed political leverage and had little influence over the president.
And as calls for urgent funding fell on deaf ears and the organisation’s financial woes continued to worsen, provincial and national staff members of the SACC rejected a mass retrenchment proposal by its national executive committee. Speaking to Daily Maverick on Sunday evening, Rev. Mautji Pataki, General Secretary of the SACC, refused to comment on the health of the organisation’s finances or the current standing of the impasse between SACC staff and the organisation’s leadership over the retrenchment packages. Indeed, complaints regarding the SACC leadership raised by its staff are remarkably similar to grievances of striking miners in Marikana against the National Union of Mineworkers.
In a statement released by SACC staff in July, it is claimed the “failure of the [SACC’s national executive committee] to consult the staff of the SACC [about retrenchment packages] is a symptom of individual interests, agendas and power struggles which contradicts the ethos of the SACC operating in a post-Apartheid, constitutionally democratic South Africa.”
Even though such criticism of the organisation is pervasive, the SACC is an organisation with a proud history. When it was formed in 1968, the organisation was meant to foster black leadership in Christian churches to promote the liberation struggle on religious and moral grounds. As the SACC grew, it was key to the revival of mass action against Apartheid in the 1980s. And from 1985, it was a vocal proponent of the campaign for sanctions against South Africa. Previous leaders of the SACC include luminaries like Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Rev. Frank Chikane and the late Beyers Naude. The organisation is still housed in Khotso House, which of course also housed Cosatu, among others.
Despite its links to the ANC, the organisation has however not been a praise singer for the ruling party. At various times the SACC has taken opposing stances to government. Notably, earlier this year the organisation met with Deputy President Kgalema Mothlanthe to voice their reservations on the controversial e-tolling proposal. “While the SACC accepted the rationale of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project as part of the strategy to decongest the roads, they expressed concerns at the state of public transport and urged government to take urgent steps to provide a reliable, efficient and quality public transport system,” the organisation said in a statement following the meeting.
But it is perhaps in Durban, in the aftermath of the Kennedy Road violence in 2009, that the SACC’s stance was most similar to the one they have adopted on the Marikana crisis of today. In September 2009, a group of 40 people is reported to have attacked a youth meeting of the shack dwellers’ movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. The attackers allegedly demolished residents’ homes and two people were killed in the ensuing violence. Suspicion was rife that the tragedy was perpetrated by ANC members and local police. And the SACC was scathing in its criticism.
“The Sydenham Police failed to provide the security that the people of Kennedy Road deserve,” Eddie Makue, former General Secretary of the SACC, said in a statement.
Fast-forward to Marikana, then, and an organisation under great strain from within has been resurgent, earning the trust of workers and mine management alike. It was the SACC who succeeded in brokering talks between Lonmin management and striking workers. The church organisation said its president, Bishop Jo Seoka, had persuaded Lonmin executives to finally meet striking miners in Marikana. “We received a mandate from workers that they were eager to meet management and we were able to speak to both management and workers,” Pataki explained.
“We started on the same day of the shootings,” Pataki said, denying strongly that it was the shootings that had taken the SACC to Marikana. He insisted it was co-incidental that the shootings occurred on the same day the SACC began working there. Pataki, however, rejects assertions that it is the SACC now representing workers’ demands in Marikana better than the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). “They have just asked us to open the road for them,” he said.
Yet it is telling that mineworkers in Marikana have shown more trust in religious leaders in the guise of the SACC than they have in NUM. Pataki nonetheless believes it is the authority of the church that strengthens the legitimacy of SACC in Marikana. “We represent the church. We simply walked into Marikana, knowing nobody there, and people welcomed us,” Pataki said.
“Anybody who does not trust people of the church, well, I don’t know what you can say about them.” DM