In the wake of the Marikana disaster one is not surprised to see the usual opportunist vultures gathering to gain whatever advantage they may derive from this terrible incident.
There are many asking questions and I am sure that the presidential commission will probably reveal what is widely suspected; that a frustrated crowd was galvanised into a rash act that caused the tragic loss of our citizens.
If anyone gets the blame it is likely to be the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), because it had the temerity to challenge a stalwart African National Congress (ANC)-aligned trade union.
Like many, I too have a question. How much blame should the trade unions be taking for this debacle? I have dealt with trade unions for more than 15 years in wage negotiations and have come to know a little of how they operate.
In theory, they are mandated by their members to put a negotiating position or demand to the employer, following the principle of collective bargaining. This presupposes that the employees have collectively decided on their demand and have given instructions to the union official to negotiate on their behalf.
In reality, this seldom happens, since there seldom is a mandate. There is more often a position handed down to members by union officials.
I have witnessed national memorandums sent to the regions by Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)-aligned unions dictating the negotiating mandate to the branch offices and thereafter to the employees. I have had shop stewards tell me in confidence that the union had not even consulted them before the mandate had been dispatched to the employer.
Why is this an important point to raise? Simply put, we live in a society where the unions hold massive political power at a national level through the Cosatu alliance.
Much of their negotiating stance is dictated by national political issues and the leverage they seek to bring to bear to secure often narrow political agendas. In the light of this, one can now consider the Marikana circumstances.
There is a rival, upstart union taking significant membership from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). This would usually provoke a harsh response, but this is an election year for the ANC. Add to the mix the tough trading conditions in the platinum industry, where mines are perhaps unable to afford the kind of increases demanded, and it is a perfect stage for a political coup.
How do you manage this set of circumstances as a union boss? Commonly, you would set about encouraging a frustrated group of people to turn a matter that should be decided by the ballot box into a fight. Why?
First, it makes the employer look like the enemy. That further entrenches the union’s reason for being and secures membership (in the Marikana case, those attacked — read NUM — need to be seen to be putting the upstart in its place). This all-important membership allows political control.
The second justification for turning to violence is to attempt to turn public opinion to sympathy and to facilitate the political leadership’s position as saviour. Out of suffering and death comes political benefit.
Could this scenario be far-fetched? Did a wage negotiation simply get out of control? I have long since stopped believing in coincidence. President Jacob Zuma flew back from Mozambique, set up a commission of inquiry and played the role he does so well, of benevolent saviour. Why did he not intervene before the bloodshed? The signs of impending disaster were plain for all to see.