OUTRAGE at the Marikana killings is justified. The usual attempts to turn them into a crude morality play with only one villain are not. Much of the reaction has taken two forms, both of which lead away from solutions. The first treats the tragedy as a ghastly error so out of keeping with the norms of our society that an inquiry must be held to find someone to blame. The other does not need an inquiry — it has already found only the governing party and its president guilty, absolving everyone else from responsibility.
Marikana was not an aberration. It was an accident waiting to happen because it was a symptom of longstanding problems about which our mainstream debate has been in denial. And, while the government must take responsibility, the killings should prompt some serious reflection from others too.
The first cause of the tragedy is that police were not trained to deal with the situation. Violence on police and by police did not begin at Marikana — it has been a constant feature of our society for years. Ten people died in the Lonmin dispute in the week before the tragedy alone. And this surely speaks to the reality that our police are not trained to deal with the violence endemic in our society.
Researcher Janine Rauch points out that, in the first few years of democracy, police knew how to prevent demonstrations becoming violent because public-order police were specially trained to do this. But they were considered too costly and were too rarely used. So they were closed down and demonstrations are now handled by ordinary police who are not trained for the task.
But why, after eight years of protests, were the public-order police not revived a long time ago? Because voices calling for humane and democratic policing have been drowned out by those demanding more force. If we think this is a problem only in the government, in how many of our suburbs are residents demanding measures that see most South Africans as a security threat?
Our police will be trained to prevent rather than cause violence when the voices recognising that we need police trained to respect democratic rules become louder than those that we can rely on police powers.
Second, the tragedy was triggered when the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) lost touch with its members, signing agreements that fell short of their demands. This opened the door to a breakaway union, which promised workers it could get for them what NUM could not. The lesson is clear: trade unions that look after their members do not cause conflict, they prevent it.
The NUM must take responsibility for its failings just as its rival must take responsibility for its demagoguery. But if the NUM had stayed in touch with its members and engaged in tough bargaining on their behalf, we would not be mourning now.
Part of the problem is the way in which unionism developed on the mines.
Because mines were sealed off to outsiders, union organisers could not gain access until employers agreed to allow unions. And so, unlike unions in other industries, mining unions did not build their organised strength in order to win recognition from employers. Links between unions and workers have therefore often been weaker.
This is important in the light of the campaign to weaken unions and their bargaining rights. The platinum industry today — and Marikana — show in stark terms what would happen if the union-bashers had their way. Preventing strong unions from bargaining hard on behalf of workers will not create jobs, it will create chaos because worker demands will lead to more Impalas and Lonmins.
Third, we need to look at why labour disputes seem more violent on the mines. Much of the reason surely lies in the nature of mining here — in most cases, ore deposits are deep under the ground, making mining them tougher and more dangerous.
One miner said last week that he did not fear police bullets because he risked his life by working underground every day.
We have made some progress in turning our mines into safer, healthier, more humane places, but Marikana suggests that we need to do more.
Finally, one reason union rivalries are so heated here is that so much is at stake. Unionism has become a way for people who win elections to live middle-class lifestyles: bitter union rivalries are thus a symptom of the glass ceilings that face ambitious people in business. The mines cannot be expected to solve this wider problem alone, but they could look at ways in which opportunities for advancement can be created that offer options other than union leadership, making battles for union control less desperate.
Marikana did not pop out of thin air. It is a symptom of problems that go much deeper than the search for scapegoats suggests.
And it requires a debate on our failings that goes well beyond the desire to find someone else to blame.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
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