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In August 2012, 40 miners, two police officers and two Lonmin security guards were killed during a violent strike at Lonmin’s Marikana mine. As the 10th anniversary approaches, it is worth asking whether SA has learnt any lessons from that series of dreadful events.

The answer to that question may depend on whether we have properly identified the underlying causes of the unrest and put in place steps to address them.

In the months that followed the violence much attention was paid by the media and the Farlam commission of inquiry to the violent manifestations of the conflict but little to its underlying causes. This is understandable, bearing in mind the magnitude of the suffering and distress caused by the deaths at the time.

It was also important to focus on how to deal more effectively with strike-related violence and the policing of it. Whether we have learnt how to do this better remains open to doubt.

A common assumption at the time was that the only underlying cause of the strike, and its attendant violence, was the alleged “slave wage” paid to rock drill operators. It was believed that the payment of a decent monetary wage could have prevented the strike and the violence.

This assumption needs to be explored because if it is correct a lesson is that strikes, and attendant violence, can be avoided by paying a decent monetary wage. However, the situation may not be as simple as that.

Figures from Stats SA indicate that in 2012 the average SA worker earned R3,000 a month and the lowest 5% of workers were earning about R1,500 a month. Furthermore, on average only 59% of SA workers had pension benefits, 40% had medical aid and only 77% had Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions paid for them, while few workers had all three benefits.

They felt their employer, and to a lesser extent the government and their union, had failed them by disregarding their plight

In contrast, the situation at Marikana was that rock drill operators earned, with bonuses, about R10,000 a month and had all three of those benefits. Some rock drill operators earned as much as R15,000 a month including bonuses. This put them in the top 25% of wage earners in SA at the time.

This does not necessarily mean the rock drill operators were well paid, but it does indicate that they were relatively better off than the rest of the SA workforce. It also raises the question of whether the monetary wage at Marikana was a major or even substantial cause of the conflict there.

As a mediator and negotiation trainer I spent much time on the platinum belt at the time. What struck me most then was the appalling conditions in which the workers at Marikana lived. Most lived in tin shanties in Nkaneng and Wonderkop. There was little if any formal housing, no refuse removal, no electricity, no security, no sewerage, no running water and no proper roads.

The hill where the workers were shot at on August 16 was used as a public toilet. There was no formal schooling nearby and health facilities were nonexistent. Public transport was absent, and workers had to rely on taxis to get into Rustenburg.

The National Union of Mineworkers, the recognised union at the time, and the government, were quite skilful in shifting the blame for these social conditions onto Lonmin, and created the impression that the problem was solely a monetary wage one. However, while there is little doubt that Lonmin could have done much to alleviate the social problems caused by these conditions, the government and the local Madibeng municipality also had much to answer for.

Living conditions

While Lonmin was paying mining royalties, taxes, VAT and municipal rates, little if any of this resource was being channelled back to the communities in which the Lonmin workers lived.

In mediation with workers at the time these conditions were highlighted as a source of much dissatisfaction for them. They worked long hours in difficult and dangerous working environments, and believed they were entitled to better living conditions.

They felt their employer, and to a lesser extent the government and their union, had failed them by disregarding their plight. It therefore seems that this social wage deficit, and the anger it engendered, was a significant underlying cause of the strike and the eventual violence.

The question then is whether the government and employers learnt anything from this. In the government’s case it seems not. In June this year auditor-general Tsakani Maluleke reported that only 16% of the country’s 257 municipalities were functioning effectively. While nearby Rustenburg was less dysfunctional than others, it was reported that “only 36% of its about 550,000 residents have pipe water delivered to their dwelling; residents with flush toilets connected to sewerage totals 53%. As alarming is the municipality’s 26% unemployment rate, which rises to 35% for its youth.”

In contrast, it does seem Sibanye-Stillwater, which now owns the Marikana mine, has learnt something. Business Day recently quoted Thabisile Phumo, Sibanye-Stillwater’s executive vice-president for stakeholder relations, saying, “As part of its social and labour plans Sibanye has 22 projects in the education sector, 13 in health, six in welfare, 10 in economic development, four in roads and four in social infrastructure.”

What’s coming

Her company is implementing the 2019 to 2023 social and labour plans that were introduced by Lonmin before the sale of the business, and were approved by the department of mineral resources & energy this year.

In addition, Miningmx reported in June that “Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater, described the deteriorating condition of the country’s municipalities as ‘a time bomb’. He added: ‘The country has gone backwards very significantly ... and after the riots of last year (triggered in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces after the imprisonment of [former] president Jacob Zuma), they’re just a sign of what’s coming. Mining companies, and even the larger contractors, think increasingly that supplementing municipal functions will become a common practice.’”

It is good to see that Sibanye-Stillwater of all companies appears to have learnt a bitter lesson that employers, rightly or wrongly, cannot rely on the government alone to provide workers with the social conditions they deserve. They obviously need to hold the government accountable and put pressure on it to deliver services, but to meet worker expectations and thereby moderate conflict, they also have to make a meaningful contribution to the improvement of the social environment in which workers live.

• Brand is a retired lawyer and mediator.

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