Lonmin shows gravity of SA’s economic, social challenges
THE objective facts of the Lonmin massacre are simple. Striking mineworkers, many carrying an assortment of weapons, clashed with heavily armed police, leaving 34 workers dead. It is the most shocking, violent clash between citizens and the state that we have witnessed since 1994.
The most urgent question on the minds of many South Africans is: how did we get to this? It is easy and lazy to see this incident as the calamitous denouement of a membership battle between two rival unions, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. It goes far deeper than that.
It relates to the relationship between the conditions of the working class and the underclass on the one hand, and the reality of our institutional arrangements at a sectorial, national and even global level on the other. It also indicates the gravity of the national economic and social challenge we face, and that it is likely that we are out of time.
To understand, the first question we have to ask is what causes anyone to risk their lives by consciously taking on the violent might of the state. Any armed confrontation with the authorities will result in a bloodbath from which the state usually emerges victorious. Not only is the state better organised, it has infinite resources to deal with such confrontations. This, however, can cause the state to lose general legitimacy with those who sympathise with the protesters.
Our high unemployment means those who work often support many adult dependants who, under different circumstances, should have their own income. Wages simply don’t go far enough.
This becomes particularly dire in the case of migrant workers, who have families to support in other provinces. Stretching their earnings to accommodate two houses at different ends of the country is an overwhelming responsibility.
This is often true of many others, including security guards, construction workers, tellers, waiters and so on. Their reality is that although they earn some income, it is often insufficient to remove them from abject poverty. It merely helps with survival and the chance to go to a place of work. It is a wretched existence considering that the housing circumstances of many such workers are poor.
Given the violence that characterised this strike, it is clear that at some point the unions involved lost the influence needed for the workers to express their discontent only in peaceful ways. In short, the workers gave up on the existing institutional arrangements meant to resolve such conflicts. Creating a disturbance of some form became, at least as far as they were concerned, the only way to ensure that the authorities took heed of their grievances. Such disturbance took the form of intimidation and murder, which claimed 10 victims before the shooting.
It is an analysis for another time, but it is critical to understand the underlying reasons why the workers felt their unions were no longer the adequate vehicle to represent their interests in the first place.
The one-dimensional answer so far is that they were "misled", a neat way of saying they are too stupid to make an assessment of their own material conditions.
People do not need a union to show them whether their income meets their needs. Unions are merely an organised channel for conveying such conclusions and, to the extent that they can, using the collective body of workers as leverage to extract concessions from employers. It is not the other way round, as this shaky theory suggests.
The incident also highlights the effect of our socioeconomic reality. On the one hand, the grievances of the workers emanate from real difficulties. On the other, the potential of companies such as Lonmin to remain operational after a 300% pay hike is zero. The platinum sector has been bleeding for some time and if the market does not turn, retrenchments will eventually occur.
We also have to ask whether the scenario that unfolded at Lonmin cannot arise in other sectors of the economy. A few years ago, we had a violent strike by security guards during which many people were killed. That was followed by an angry strike by public servants about two years ago, which saw skirmishes between the police and strikers. No one can say with any confidence that such violence may not occur in the future, necessitating the state to once again respond with force.
This in turn should cause us to ask whether it is possible to sustain our democracy and social stability, and to maintain labour equilibrium in the economy, if we rely on state violence to keep it in place. Prosperity can be achieved only if the equilibrium between labour competitiveness and equitable pay is reached by consensus. Our inability to resolve the unemployment problem means this equilibrium is retreating every day. It might get worse when our national coffers are no longer able to sustain our bulging social security system.
We have a conflict that conflates working class issues with the problems of the underclass to which many of them really belong. The inability of municipalities to deliver even the most basic services and the resultant violent service delivery protests indicates our increasing reliance on state violence to maintain general social order.
Then there is the desperation of those who are structurally unemployed, the millions who have poor or no prospects of ever being involved in meaningful economic activity.
At some point their frustration will also boil over into social upheaval, violence which necessitates an equivalent or more severe response by the state.
Under these circumstances, we have to assess carefully the possibility that the boiling points in each of these three spheres will either occur simultaneously or prompt one another. The most likely response will be to deploy more police, or even the army. Such a scenario is apocalyptic and too ghastly to bear. No state ever survives when its machinery is at war with its own people.
We need a new political, economic and social ethos — a new contract premised on maintaining a just social and economic equilibrium rather than securing a pound of flesh for various interests.
The key ingredient is strong, visionary leadership in the state, business and organised labour that makes tough, unpopular choices. It is the only way we will reset our existing national formula and rapidly evolve towards a new one.
In additional to leadership, the other major constraint in this regard is the nature of global economic institutional arrangements, which have reduced sovereignty to a largely theoretical exercise. While the country can legislate or consensually agree to pay workers more, that formula will become unsustainable if our products are subsequently uncompetitive in global markets.
Besides, it is not just the quantum of the wages workers earn, but the overwhelming responsibilities that depend on their income. Under conditions in which relatives are unemployed and the failure of state services requires the purchase of the same from expensive private providers, we are always going to reach a breaking point.
The denouement of the Lonmin confrontation is a tragic illustration of what happens when that breaking point is breached, and we will be naive to think this will be isolated to Lonmin or the mining sector. It is a prospect that faces many different spheres of the country, whose consequences are too ghastly to contemplate or leave unattended.
• Zibi is a member of the Midrand Group.