Friday, 12 September 2014

Marikana helps us see and understand South Africa, warts and all

While the media and the commission engage in an anatomy of the Marikana tragedy, Marikana itself has become a lens to help us understand key aspects of South African life.
There are many positive things about SA; however, there is also its shadow side. Marikana shows us the way in which our system – otherwise known for its stable and middle income standing with potential – is flawed and ailing.
First: Marikana brings to the fore the matter of popular violence. This violence close to the surface and very frequently bursts forth when the cracks of inequality widen. Far too many strikes turn violent. Many service delivery protests end with burning of facilities or with senseless attacks on hawkers. What are the roots of such violence? Does it lie in SA history of apartheid’s violence and brutality? Or is linked to the Frantz Fanon’s necessary violence of the oppressed who at some point lash out in a quest for freedom?
Second: Marikana shows us how clunky and unfit for purpose our labour relations system has become. It is not wise to be generally dismissive of our labour relations regime, however. That would give ammunition to conservative bosses who would like to reverse labour relations gains and close the space for trade union activity.

It is much better to clarify that the labour system weakened because it has been hollowed out by weak unions and the conduct of employers. Employers have skilfully utilised the labour relations system. They have complied; they have often outmanoeuvred unions. But what they have failed to see is that unless the labour dispensation delivers real and meaningful outcomes – as well as positive life changes – to unionised workers, workers will ultimately undermine and reject the system itself.
Third: Marikana raises the issue of policing and policing systems. The first aspect of recent police violence is accountability. In the Marikana case, after such a heavy human cost, the system was reluctant to hold anyone accountable. Why? And how did that impact on South Africans’ sense that they live in democracy with institutions that hold everyone accountable?

The other aspect is that the country has been found wanting as far as appropriate public policing is concerned. After 1994, government disbanded much of its capacity for public order policing. This was clearly a mistake. However, under our constitutional democracy, simply bringing back the old public policing capacities will not suffice.

Instead, what is needed are specially trained public order officers who are led by seniors skilled at communication (listening and negotiations), and who posses deep understandings of culture, history and social issues. Marikana, as well as the Andries Tatane killing forces us to grasp certain realities. But the processes of learning and change are slow.
Fourth: Marikana puts the spotlight on geographical marginalisation within South Africa. Of the miners that died, only two were from the Marikana area in the North West. Most hailed from the poverty-ridden Eastern Cape. But while the miners from the Eastern Cape have a foothold in the economy and can use union organisation to advance their cause, the people from Marikana appear to have slipped off the edge. Their youth are unemployed and find it hard to secure jobs on the mines. The people live in cracked houses and inhale polluted air, all side effects of the mining. These communities of North West live among the mines, but taste little of the benefit. 
Fifth: Marikana exposes a deeply problematic side to BEE. In sectors such as mining, BEE makes alliances with elites to contain, ‘manage’ and minimise societal commitments, to lull the regulators to sleep. Empowerment is good and necessary – what is perverse is when it is done in a way designed to dodge the demand to properly engage with local communities. As Bench Marks has shown in its report on the platinum industry, parts of big business, sheltered by BEE and political connections, renege on their commitments in terms of housing and the environment.

Marikana shows that while big business can pat itself on the back for astute manoeuvres to externalise social and environmental costs, in the end there will be conflict, instability and possibly violence. Some commentators have drawn parallels between the conduct of mine owners here and, for example, companies such as Shell in resource-rich countries to our north. There deals are made with chiefs and other elites, while communities are marginalised. In the case of the Ogoni people, it culminated in an uprising and finally the death of activist Ken Saro-Wiwe.
Sixth: Marikana raises questions about the role of the media. The latter does sterling work on public sector corruption. But to the extent that it misses the excesses of capitalism, it is a one-eyed campaigner for justice.
The media sometimes does allow voices to raise non-mainstream issues in its commentary pages, but its news pages and exposes seldom shine a light on the darker corners of capitalism. Mining bosses in the platinum industry have for years given themselves generous bonuses while apparently failing to lift workers living standards through, for example, consistent above-inflation wage increases. Where was the mainstream media?

In recent years, in an arc stretching from North West through Northern Province and Mpumalanga, the mining industry is making lucrative connections between land, elites and new mining in moves that have excluded community interests and fuelled community protest. There has been the odd story about individual community protest, but no fuller expose of this trend.
There is no hiding from the horror of Marikana. It raises fundamental questions about the transition. It poses uncomfortable questions to capitalists as well as beneficiaries of the transition who only embrace its blessings but forget about its shortcomings

This piece appeared in the print media on 22 August 2014.
Frank Meintjies