THE National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) conceded on Thursday that, in hindsight, a flexible approach to wage negotiations during the strike at Lonmin in Marikana might have averted the tragedy on August 16, when police shot 34 of the protesters.

Erick Gcilitshana, NUM chief negotiator at Lonmin and national secretary of health and safety, accepted a proposition tabled by commission evidence leader Adv Geoff Budlender that — in light of negotiations that took place last year outside of collective bargaining structures following the events at Marikana — lives may have been saved if the NUM and Lonmin had been able to negotiate outside of normal bargaining processes even earlier.

Prior to Mr Gcilitshana’s concession, the NUM was known to have the fixed attitude that negotiations could only take place within proper bargaining structures. Also, the NUM was on record as saying it was not willing to enter into negotiations in which the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) was involved, because Amcu was not officially a part of the bargaining process at the time.

The NUM’s testimony raises questions over whether Lonmin would be under pressure to concede that its rigid stance on wage negotiations in the period leading up to the Marikana tragedy may not have been the best option.

Evidence presented to the commission has shown that the protesters asked Lonmin’s management to address them directly — before they would disarm and possibly disperse. The company declined to speak to the protesters outside of the established collective bargaining processes — a position it still maintains.

The workers had demanded a R12,500 basic salary.

Mr Budlender suggested to Mr Gcilitshana that it should have been clear, before the shooting on August 16, that not all parties involved in the strike were adequately represented in the bargaining structures, and, therefore, taking the negotiations to that platform would not have worked.

The protesters had also lost confidence in the ability of the NUM — whose membership had declined at the mine — to adequately represent their views.

Lonmin’s legal counsel, Schalk Burger, said on Thursday that the environment had changed after the Marikana tragedy, creating conditions for talks to be considered outside of the normal bargaining structures.

Mr Burger agreed with Mr Gcilitshana that both the NUM and Lonmin had adopted the attitude that they would not negotiate with workers in an environment of violence and criminal activity. "The workers were aggressive and carrying dangerous weapons," said Mr Burger.

He said the September negotiations were different because the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration was involved, and all parties had agreed to speak to each other, "clearly out of the light that 44 people have lost their lives". The September talks resulted in a 22% wage increase for the workers.

Mr Gcilitshana is the 10th witness to take the stand since the commission started in October.