Legacy of Marikana: investors should hope for the best, but plan for the worst

Gideon du Plessis: Providing an insider's perspective of the looking labour crisis - and options SA faces
Gideon du Plessis: Providing an insider’s perspective of the looking labour crisis – and options SA faces

Will there be another Marikana? A year after violent clashes in the mining sector brought into sharp relief the socio-economic challenges that continue to bedevil South Africa, Gideon du Plessis, General Secretary of trade union Solidarity, reflects on what went wrong. He lists at least 20 reasons behind the conflict and warns that the problems are not behind us. There are few people with better insight into South Africa’s labour relations dynamics than Du Plessis. In this cautionary tale, he argues that leaders and decision-makers need to take brave steps to restore the rule of law – or expect more unemployment and disinvestment. – JC

By Gideon du Plessis*

A year after the Marikana incident which was characterised by unprotected strikes; protest marches; killings; violence; intimidation and the emergence of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a tense atmosphere is still being felt in the mining industry.

With hindsight, it is clear that the Marikana incident, and what resulted from it, were caused by a great many factors, constituting the perfect storm. Among others, Marikana was caused by the following:

  • poor labour relations management as well as distrust;
  • trade union rivalry;
  • trade union politics;
  • inability of trade unions to manage the interests of members at various job levels;
  • socio-economic conditions in the Marikana area;
  • the migrant worker system that stirs ethnic tension and places a financial burden on employees who have to run two households;
  • unscrupulous microlenders;
  • a criminal element which incited violence;
  • cultural influences;
  • orchestrated intimidation of employees to join protest marches;
  • political influence of ANC and NUM opponents;
  • a political battle for control of entry level workers;
  • incitement and retaliation of former dismissed NUM and Lonmin employees; political opportunists;
  • lack of leadership from all role-players;
  • a distorted ideological mindset;
  • aggrieved employees whose circumstances essentially have not improved since 1994;
  • the majority principle for trade union recognition;
  • lack of internal security intelligence;
  • service delivery frustrations; and
  • intense media interest.

Many of the aforementioned issues mirror the challenges South Africa is generally facing, the mining industry thus being a microcosm of South African society. The Framework Agreement for a Sustainable Mining Industry, an initiative of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, is a blueprint to systematically address the above causes over a period of 12 months. Although Amcu’s refusal to sign the agreement has not stopped the initiative it will, no doubt, limit its possible successes.

While the Marikana incident should also be regarded as an appeal from the so-called ‘have nots’, and gave vent to their frustration, the result was so destructive that the negative consequences would still be felt for a long time. In this regard, many mining communities that live close to those platinum and gold mines where large-scale workplace anarchy occurred live in fear because of the continuation of violence and intimidation. A tense atmosphere prevails at mines where there is trade union rivalry to canvass members and where disputes about trade union recognition are being experienced.

While certain commentators sing Amcu’s praises for opposing the status quo and for having forced a gradual move away from existing institutionalised structures, Amcu is causing unnecessary conflict in the labour relations field. Amcu, having benefitted from the Marikana incident, should not abuse their newly found position of power and should not isolate themselves from all other stakeholders. Should it become the norm for our Amcu colleagues to make themselves guilty of poor time management; to oppose proposals as a matter of principle; to refuse to sign agreements or to unreasonably postpone signing; not wanting to co-operate with other trade unions in good faith; making unrealistic demands and creating unrealistic expectations among members and potential members, then they will only befriend individuals and institutions of dubious credibility and motive.

Because of the violent and destructive nature of events linked to the Marikana incident which spilled over to other mines, it is difficult to justify any positives emanating from it. A democratic and civilised country cannot afford to have disputes, originating in the labour relations field, boil over to such an extent that innocent people are intimidated or savagely killed.

As various individuals abused their influence and power and manipulated people for their own gain before, during and after the Marikana incident, the evil of these individuals can only be neutralised by leaders and decision-makers in positions of power who have the courage of conviction to take decisions to restore the balance of power. If the rule of law is not soon restored, this form of labour relations, which often gravitates towards workplace anarchy, will become the norm and will deteriorate as unemployment increases because of local and international investors withdrawing their investments from the country.

* Gideon du Plessis is General Secretary of Solidarity. If you found this article interesting, also read this piece by Gideon du Plessis: Right now labour is SA’s big story with the stark options: the Highway or the Dirt Road

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