Sunday, September 2, 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.

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