Don't Panic

What the Marikana Massacre exposes about union power struggles

‘More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins’
George Orwell

‘You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before’
Rahm Emanuel

Striking miners chant slogans outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Johan …

Platinum is a strategic industrial metal used in in ships, pipelines and steel piers, and is South Africa's most valuable commodity. The deposits there constitute 70% of the world's known resources, so theoretically South Africans could be calling the shots on how it’s used. Instead, the metal is traded on the London Metals Exchange and auctioned to the highest bidder. Many South Africans are blissfully unaware of this.

One group, however, who certainly know of this are the miners of Marikana - the group who have come to international attention after a strike over pay escalated into a bloodbath. In all 34 individuals were shot dead by police, with a further 70 injured.

But this is not a straightforward case of state brutality perpetrated against an unarmed militia. South Africans will justifiably shudder at comparisons to Apartheid-era violence. What emerges appears to be a bloody turf-war between rival unions - the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Whoever controls the workforce, controls the mine.

It comes after months of bitter violence. There were reports of workers being murdered for being a member of the wrong union, two security guards were burnt to death in their car, and - possibly most relevant when considering the massacre - two policeman were killed in bloody beatings.

So, with this in mind, it’s surprising that the mine’s owner - the London based Lonmin - have not stepped in sooner. By remaining out of site, they highlight the dislocation between London and Marikana.

This perception of western exploitation (accurate or not) obfuscates the reality that the miners are being used as much by the unions as they are by Lonmin. Marikana produces 90% of Lonmin’s platinum and has a global influence. The union dues at Lonmin alone are worth around R100 million a year (nearly £10 million).

As a Johannesburg based friend of mine said to me: "Thirty-five dead people is not that many for that kind of money in this part of the world."

Be that as it may, Lonmin's handling of the affair has been nothing short of disastrous. Their reaction has been staid, conservative, backwards looking and perceived as self serving - all we have is a terse five line statement aimed at stakeholders.

Even if Chief Executive, Ian Farmer, is to step down for some months for health reasons, as reports suggest, it does not excuse Lonmin’s tardy PR. New acting CEO Simon Scott should be on the first flight to South Africa, shedding tears into cameras and looking very, very concerned. The future of his company may well rest on this issue.

In the meantime, the families of the miners bury their dead. This dispute is far from over.