Margaret Evans: More strife in South Africa's troubled mines

A new round of massive layoffs in South Africa's platinum mines is adding more labour and political unrest to a county still reeling from last fall's deadly confrontation in the 'platinum province,' Margaret Evans reports.

Labour unrest ripping through the country

There are paved roads and electricity in the mine itself, but not in the shacks, like these, where most of the Lonmin miners live. (Margaret Evans / CBC)

Picture a site not far from the town of Rustenburg in the broad expanse of South Africa's North West "platinum province," along the border with Botswana.  

To one side stands the industrial hulk of the Lonmin mine, symbol of industry and (until recently) South Africa's booming resource economy. It's grey concrete shafts rise up out of the ground to tower over a maze of power lines.  

Sprawled at its feet, the muddy shantytown that serves as home to the miners who fuel the industry, and scratch out their meagre living.  

In the distance you can see the red kopi, the hill where 34 miners met their end, shot dead by police in the midst of a wildcat strike in August. A crooked cluster of white wooden crosses, their memorial.  

This is the stage where the most seminal event in South Africa's recent history was played out, where the raw elements of a fractured society collided with deadly effect.  

"They were killed right in front of me," says miner Teboho Hlakentso. "And some of the people who got killed, they were not just shot, they were stabbed with spears by the police.  

"So the people would be shot and they would be laying there wounded and dying and the police would take their spears and the police would finish them off with spears."

The images of miners being gunned down, captured on social media, shocked the nation and summoned memories of police brutality during the years of apartheid.  

The South African government's response was to set up a three-month commission of inquiry, headed by retired judge Ian Farlam, which was supposed to report this month. It now is to resume hearings today, its mandate extended until June.

But this next stage could be even more emotionally and politically fraught as South Africa is undergoing yet another spasm of labour unrest.

Adding to it, Anglo American Platinum, the world's largest producer of the precious metal, announced late last week that it would shutter two South African mines, sell another and cut nearly 14,000 jobs — most of these in the Marikana area, near the Lonmin-owned mine where August's violence left its bitter mark.  

A confusing story

Seventy-eight people were injured that day in Marikana, while 270 of the striking Lonmin miners were arrested and then charged with the deaths of their fellow protesters.

Still angry Lonmin workers walk off the job in September, less than a month after the deadly wildcat strike,to protest against strike breakers at a nearby platinum mine. (Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters)

The police say their officers acted in self-defence. Violence in the area had intensified in the days ahead of the clash; two policemen and a security guard had been killed and many of the demonstrators were carrying traditional spears.

But the striking miners, who had abandoned their own union, accusing it of collusion with the mine owners, deny they were out for blood.   

"We were not looking for any war," says Hlakentso. "We wanted money from management. That's all we are looking for."

Muzi Msimang is one of the lawyers acting for the 300 or so miners injured and/or arrested.  

"When the police were confronted with the situation they were not ready for it and [their] reaction was disproportionate," he says.  

Some here have argued that the police planned the killings deliberately, in revenge for the deaths of the two policemen earlier in the month.

Convincing evidence of police tampering at the crime scene has already been presented at the inquiry. 

Further muddying the waters are allegations by the wildcat strikers that officials from their former union, the National Union of Mineworkers, were the ones to call in the elite police units.

Regional NUM organizer Celani Tlami denies that was the case.

"Fortunately we've still got strong members that believe in the NUM, they'll be with us till Jesus comes back," he says. "The NUM is not going to die now."

Everyone's tarnished

What happened at the Lonmin mine that day in Marikana is a complicated tale. But whether the facts ever become clear may in the end be irrelevant.  

More important is whether the South African government will read the warning signs.

Miner Teboho Hlakentso: 'They were killed right in front of me.' (Margaret Evans / CBC)

"There's a risk of violence in this country," says Mark Heywood of the civil society group, Section 27. He notes that the number of strikes across different sectors of society is rising here every day — several took off in the immediate aftermath of the Lonmin confrontation.  

"Many of the strikes become violent very quickly," Heywood says. "That's not because the strikers are naturally violent, it's because of the high level of frustration that's building up and a leadership that doesn't know what to do."  

Aside from setting up the commission, the government response has been a muted one, leaving it to controversial politicians like Julius Malema, the ousted former youth leader of the ruling African National Congress party, to defend the rights of the workers.  

"Look at what's happening in Marikana," Malema said in an interview last month.

"A mine with electricity, a mine with water, a mine with tar roads, inside! A stone throw away, there's no toilet, there's no school. There's nothing."  

Malema has been visiting the miners at Marikana and elsewhere, talking up the nationalization of the mining industry. "Now is the time we share the cake," he says.

Retired judge Ian Farlam, resumes his inquiry on Monday, Jan. 21. (Reuters)

Still, there was little attention paid to the Marikana tragedy at the ANC's recent party congress in Mangaung, at least beyond lip service.

That's hardly surprising. The incident is a shameful one no matter how you look at it. But there may be other reasons, too.  

The man just elected as President Jacob Zuma's deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a successful businessman — and a former union leader with the NUM — who has a nine per cent share in the Lonmin mining company and a seat on its board.  

Just prior to the incident in August he sent an email to local authorities, urging them to take a strong stand against what he described as "criminal" elements.

Ramaphosa has said he was trying to prevent more bloodshed in the wake of the deaths leading up to Marikana.  

But for some South Africans, the reputation of a man once heralded as a hero of the liberation struggle has been tarnished, as he joins the ranks of a growing number of ANC leaders accused of turning their backs on their people.

Police stand over some of the dead miners on Aug. 16, 2012 at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg, about 100 km northwest of Johannesburg. One of South Africa's most traumatic labour confrontations. (Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters)