Thousands of striking miners, armed, angry and determined, mass in defiance of the police who opened fire using live rounds. Picture: THE TIMES
Thousands of striking miners, armed, angry and determined, mass in defiance of the police who opened fire using live rounds. Picture: THE TIMES

IF THE chairman of platinum miner Lonmin, Roger Phillimore, was not on a plane to South Africa on Friday evening, he should be ashamed of himself.

In the wake of easily the worst state-on-citizen violence in South Africa since we became a democracy in 1994, protesting mineworkers at Lonmin’s Marikana mine near Rustenburg have shattered the company’s share price and sharply inflated the global price of platinum. That is almost a sideshow to the nearly 50 deaths that the strike has triggered so far — 34, according to the most recent confirmed figures, in a hail of police bullets at the mine on Thursday afternoon.

Lonmin may not be directly responsible for the violence accompanying the strike, but it has wide and deep duties that it is spectacularly failing to fulfil. It has a duty to its shareholders, to its customers, to its staff, to the mining industry in South Africa generally and, ultimately, to all South Africans.

But it is nowhere to be seen. Its CEO, Ian Farmer, is ill in hospital. Its spokesman appears not to be available. The chairman resides in England. Is he on holiday along with the rest of Europe?

Lonmin needs to be a part of the solution to an intractable problem at the mine. It isn’t new. The new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) is slowly taking apart the venerable National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the platinum industry, mine after mine. That fact, on its own, should be enough to raise alarm bells throughout the South African body politic.

The NUM is the thoughtful, considered heart of the union movement here. Cyril Ramaphosa and Kgalema Motlanthe, for instance, come out of it. As a union it is a powerful voice of reason in an often loud and rash movement.

It appreciates and values private capital and strong companies. Business everywhere should be hoping the union finds a way to defend itself effectively from Amcu’s attacks.

For the moment, though, it is being left to the police and the two competing unions to try to hold down the peace, and that’s not good enough.

For a start, the strike is ostensibly about pay, an issue neither the police nor the unions can solve. Second, business, just for the sake of it, needs to be seen to stand up at a moment of crisis like this in South Africa and be damned well counted.

The strike and the tragedy of Thursday will be with us for a very long time. It represented a failure of our new society on many levels, most strikingly the inability of the majority black establishment (of which the NUM and the ruling African National Congress and union umbrella Cosatu are leaders) to come to terms with the majority of black, marginalised, poor and desperate people.

Amcu was bred around beer and fires in deepest rural Pondoland in the Transkei. Sick and tired of watching NUM officials get cars and offices at the mines they worked for, they were determined to make their own luck.

Pondoland is a generally quiet place, but its people are deeply traditional and deeply fierce when roused. There is not going to be any stopping Amcu.

That means a solution to the violence has to be found at a high level, and that it has to recognise, for the NUM and for Cosatu and the ANC itself, the extremely uncomfortable truth that there is a power building in the land over which they have little or no influence, and which itself has little or no respect for the powers that be.

For President Jacob Zuma, Amcu represents an entirely new challenge.

He made a name for himself as a conciliator in KwaZulu-Natal, but they were his "own" people. He is also a Zulu. In Amcu, he confronts a fearless group of displaced, disempowered and discontented men who owe him nothing and expect nothing from him.

Driven by antiquated beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery, they believe in the powers of "sangomas" to make them invincible. Try reasoning with that.

Here’s a test for Mr Zuma — we all have a real interest in him passing.