Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. Picture: SUNDAY WORLD
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. Picture: SUNDAY WORLD

DEPUTY President Kgalema Motlanthe, a former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, says he believes that the mineworkers at Marikana had been in a muti-induced trance in which they would either kill or be killed.

Thirty-four people were killed and 78 were wounded when police fired on protesters on a hilltop near the mine two weeks ago. "It is a tragedy. When they are in a trance they are capable of killing and being killed, because their perception of danger is also blurred," Mr Motlanthe told journalists at a special briefing at Parliament on Wednesday evening.

He gave a detailed explanation of how and why illegal and violent industrial action tended to occur in mining workplaces. Muti provided by a "witch doctor" plays a central role, he said.

Large-scale industrial action could be sparked off by small groups of five or 10 people.

"Rock drill operators work right at the coal face and most of them do that same work for up to 17 years without ever changing. They gain job specific experience and they also understand that without them all other operations are superfluous. At the same time as they gain experience, they also learn that there are house rules: there are unions, there is collective bargaining. But once they get to a point that they feel they are victims of super exploitation and someone suggests to them that can be remedied in a short time they also understand that they must pull out of the house, because the house has rules."

At first, this might involve only a small group of people. "Of them the decision maker will be whoever is going to procure the services of people who will strengthen you: a muti person, a witch doctor who performs rituals and gives you potions so that your enemies melt. Whoever is able to do that becomes the kingmaker.

"The second-in-command is the one who will procure the weapons," he said.

The first prescription of the witch doctor would be for a human body part or blood.

"So the first task is to kill. Once strengthened you can go and intimidate. So this is a new structure where the house rules are not applicable," he said. But although it is relatively easy to take the workforce out on strike, the group does not have contact with the employer. Inevitably, the time will come when they have to go back in the house. This is what makes them determined to achieve their demands before they go back to the workplace where there are rules, he said.

While Mr Motlanthe was speaking in general terms, the dispute at Lonmin’s Marikana mine has many of these features. Many believed themselves invincible after being sprinkled with potions. They have also been reluctant to return to work until their wage demand is won.

Poor living conditions had also been an important element in worker dissatisfaction, Mr Motlanthe said.

He said the implications for employers of what had happened at Marikana was that they would have to "think deeply" about how to provide better living conditions for workers.

"Mines need to provide housing. This out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach creates conditions for this kind of wildcat action. So in the long run employers lose more than they gain."

On Thursday, the Department of Justice said preparations for a commission of inquiry into the deaths had started. Its terms of reference will be gazetted on Friday.