Sunday, 2 September 2012

A tragedy all around

If it wasn't so sad, it would have been a classic case study where everybody was at fault. The Marikana miners strike in South Africa is a disaster where every party - the miners, the company, the unions, the police and the government deserve censure for the way they have conducted themselves.

Here is what happened. One of the platinum mines belonging to the mining giant Lonmin is in the Marikana area in South Africa. In early August there was a flash strike over pay demands. The situation escalated badly and resulted in a violent incident on 16th August when police firing resulted in 34 miners being  killed and 78 injured. Prior to this 2 police officers had also been killed. Since the infamous Sharpeville massacre in 1960, this was the worst violence in South Africa, and certainly the blackest day in the post apartheid era.

The company Lonmin deserves some of the blame. Its workers are poor and live in shantytowns without any decent housing. Since 2001, the price of platinum has quadrupled in the market. And yet the wages of the workers have risen by only a small amount. When profits are soaring and there are not commensurate benefits to employees, the situation is ripe for unrest. Lonmin also appears to have done little by way of social responsibility, and the little it did was often the subject of political patronage. It is impossible to be in an island of profits when surrounded by poverty. With such inequality, the flashpoint was inevitable.

The strike by workers was over a demand to triple their wages. Those of us in India, who remember Datta Samant would recall such absurd demands and militant action. No company is going to triple  wages in one go. There is also no doubt that miners resorted to some violence - two policemen were killed and it appears that their weapons were snatched and used against the police.

The unions were heavily politicised.  The dominant union was affiliated to the ruling ANC and an outsider union of the opposition was trying to break in. One upmanship on taking extremist stands and violence seems to have resulted.

The police have certainly overreacted. Yes two of their own were killed and they seem to have extracted revenge.  They were corralling workers with barbed wire and when threatened, resorted to extreme force with live ammunition. But was the force justified ? There is hardly any industrial dispute in the world where 34 people have been killed.

The government has behaved awfully. For long it has been indifferent to the appalling inequities in South African society and a small black elite has gone very rich through massive corruption. After this incident happened, the public prosecutor arrested some 270 striking miners and charged them with the murder of the 34 under an apartheid era law! The outrage was universal, and they have since had to withdraw and release the miners.

The real tragedy is on those who died - miners and policemen - and the injured. Nothing is going to bring back the dead. Is any business worth the loss of so many lives. And is any cause for agitation worth this price ?

South Africa has a real problem with inequality and seems to have no sensible way to tackle it.  It is of course, a global problem with no easy answers, but in South Africa the problem can be seen at its most acute form. If it does not find even a partial answer, the spectacle of Zimbabwe looms.


  1. Half-way through Mandela's biography so this news has been on my mind....sad sad situation :(....miners in general, not just in South Africa, suffer through a lot...a risky profession....

  2. Sad indeed. If you are interested in South African history, especially how apartheid came about and how it took roots, I recommend Lapierre's A Rainbow in the Night

  3. When your profits are quadrapled (going by the fact that the price of platinum has quadrapled over the past decade), isn't it just to at least double the wages??? I cannot even imagine the conditions of the deceased's families....this is such brutality to pull most of their only lifeline (assuming some of them were the only bread winners).....

    I am going to read A Rainbow in the Night. Thanks for the reco....

  4. How about something closer home at Manesar where the workers held the management to ransom (including killing one of the execs at Suzuki)

  5. My Fil worked in the mines and mil would say sometimes they would be away for 2-3 days and there would be no info. Those days when they were no advanced communication. Life was difficult for them and still seems so. Maybe they need another Rosa Parks. It took a civil war to end the discrimination in the US.

  6. @RS - Yes, real sad. The problem with wages is always that they are relative. In the end employees have to see fairness that wages across all levels are reasonable.

    @Kiwi- Yes, that was awful as well, and reminded me of the Bengal of the 70s and 80s. But this one is of an order of magnitude more serious. Btw, went to see your mates in the Bangalore test. You lot were pretty decent :):)

    @Asha - Yes, mining is inherently dangerous and in China and in Latin America, there are horror stories every year. Lot has improved in terms of safety, but still it remains a dangerous profession.

  7. Can power really exist without money? Can money ever exist without power? Most likely no. Same is the case with politics and profit making entities and more often than not, we see the results like this.

    What happened in Manesar was totally punishable. But then, what will happen to the culprits is the moot question? Will there be a peace unless the root cause is removed? Without support of well organized, systemic and power oriented influence, it is hard to imagine for such acts to happen. Indeed, sorry to hear but then the ones who do this are the ones amongst us and that is the most sorry part...

  8. Thank you for the recommendation Ramesh - I won't get to it right away but will definitely read it!

  9. News reports are that there are new labor unrest issues at other mines too ...

    A tricky problem it is to figure out how much the $$$ can/should be shared with the labor ... and it gets tragically trickier when it gets highly politically charged to the extent of the whole negotiations getting violent.

    I remember even in our own good old town of Neyveli, way back when we were kids, during one strike the police chasing a few workers and a couple of them got their heads smashed by the police batons, not far from my home ...

    When such incidents happen, whether in SA or India, they further complicate the fragile economic conditions and the socio-political stability in those countries ... tragedy all around, yes ...

  10. I was certain you will be in the Chinnaswamy stadium given your penchant for watching 'real' cricket. Must agree the blackcaps did pretty well. perhaps 30 runs more and perhaps one more Indian wicket, the match would have turned. Incidentally the last time around in 2010 when these guys were in BLR, the NZ High Commission invited me and Junior (as possibly the only expat Kiwis living in BLR at that time) for a high tea with the Blackcaps, and indeed a couple of them are really mates in the true sense (Kyle Mills lives about 3km up the road from us)

  11. @Vishal - Yeah - its as much a power grab as money grab. Man seems to want to revert to his caveman times given half a chance :(

    @Shachi - I suspect you won't have much time for books for the next one year :)

    @Sriram - Usually it doesn't reach a flashpoint unless the division of profits is blatantly unfair. Oh Yes, I remember the Neyveli strikes. Those days I was ignorantly completely pro labour !

    @Kiwi - Yes, you did very well indeed. The game was also played in great spirit - no theatrics, no nonsense. It was a pleasure to watch.

  12. I worked in South Africa, witnessed Mandela's inauguration and befriended people there in 1994. It is tragic that the South African State has turned against the miners. These are the people who played a key role in ending apartheid. The erstwhile COSATU (the apex body for South African Trade Unions) had politicised the railways and the mines. The Apartheid Government had characterised a labour movement that had a black majority as a purely Communist front. This
    is where the ANC cut its teeth.

    For those who love South African music, buy (or download) the musical "Township Fever" which has the great Mbongeni Ngema as the musical director and Miriam Makeba singing in it. A very political musical about the struggle of the black worker in a racist state that was dominated by white capitalists.

    COSATU had Joe Slovo as one of its mentors. He was white. His wife was murdered by a letter bomb. His daughters Robin and Gillian (whom we used to know in London) gave us a harrowing account of the day they met their mother's killer in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

    Apartheid was one of the most shameful episodes in history. Its legal underpinnings came from a huge distortion of the Bible (the "hewers of wood and drawers of water" part) and from the state constitution of the American state of Arkansas (I am not kidding). It had three key pieces of legislation that defined the era. The Race Relations Act prohibited sex between the races. The Group Areas Act introduced separate living zones and hence the infamous pass system. The Bantu Education Act mandated differential education standards for different races (using the "hewers of wood" part of the Bible as the basis). While Lapierre has written a typical account, just find and read these Acts of the South African parliament to understand apartheid.

    The land that produced a Mandela now has a Zuma running it. A real tragedy.

  13. And this whole thing will get into a vicious circle of enmity between the local police and the people there, miners losing jobs ( like the 500 who lost jobs in Manesar)and families spiralling into poverty and the protests continuing to the extent it might spread into a communal violence.

    why dont we humans ( with all our intelligence) not simply understand malevolence breeds more of it?

    I cant but help notice how your commentors (barring one maybe)are equally brillant as you. Their insights are as enriching as your posts themselves :-) :-)

  14. @Ravi - The history of South Africa and the rise of apartheid is a fascinating area for study. The likes of Zuma and, worse, Malema, just go to show what a great man Mandela is.

    @Vincy - Very true. The cycle only becomes vicious.

    Oh yes, the commenters here add more value to the discussions than me. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't enjoy blogging half as much. The one you refer to is the warmest, nicest and most incisive commenter of them all :)

  15. Both the post & the comments were illuminating to say the least. Add me in along with Vincy.
    Also loved what u wrote to Vincy in reply:-)).

  16. @Reflections - Illuminations are even more special when they are subject to Reflections ! You see, they shine even more brightly then :)

  17. Awwwwwwwww Ramesh. thats a greaat compliment - truly value it. :-)


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