If your partner came home and unexpectedly gave you an expensive platinum ring, you would probably be very pleased. But if you were behaving responsibly, you’d ask them where it came from and how they afforded it. When they admitted that they stole it from the little old lady down the street, you’d hopefully recoil and demand they give the ring back to its rightful owner. Any lustre the ring might have had would be tarnished by the thought of the vulnerable old lady who had been robbed in your name. (You may also want to reconsider your choice of partner.)
We all understand how to act responsibly but geography and othering sometimes lead us to care less when the victims of our good fortune are out of sight or live lives we choose not to understand.
This August will be the 5th anniversary of the Marikana massacre. In 2012, South African police opened fire on a group of platinum miners who had had the temerity to demand a fair wage for their backbreaking work and decent living conditions. In the worst mass killing since the end of apartheid, 34 miners were gunned down and another 78 were injured. The killings were particularly shocking because they seemed planned – one of the strike leaders Mgcineni ‘Mambush’ Noki (pictured in the green blanket) was shot 14 times.
The miners had been protesting that their wages, which averaged 4,000-5,000 rand a month (£215-270), were not enough to live on and many of the 33,000 staff lived in poor quality, corrugated shack homes with no running water or electricity. Lonmin, the world’s third largest platinum producer which owned the mine, is accused of putting profits ahead of the wellbeing of their staff because the company decided not to close the mine despite days of escalating violence.
In the aftermath of the killings President Jacob Zuma launched an inquiry, which blamed Lonmin, the police and the mining unions but conveniently cleared his friend, former deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (a director and shareholder of Lonmin at the time) of all culpability. Lonmin promised to compensate the families of the slain and the firm also reached a deal to pay workers 12,500 rand per month (£744) – the amount they originally asked for – but some shareholders feel this is too generous. One compared the pay demand to her pension allowance. “The bulk of my pension goes on utilities,” she said. “They say they don’t have electricity, gas or running water so I don’t understand what they want to spend it on.”
Nearly five years after the killings, the miners are still waiting for their pay rises, most are still living in atrocious conditions and the families of the killed are still waiting for apologies and compensation. Last week, a demonstration at the Lonmin AGM in Barbican demanded the company keep its promises. Led by former Pretoria Bishop the Right Reverend Dr Johannes Seoka, the protesters called for Lonmin to increase the wages, provide decent homes and apologise for the killings but were met with platitudes and not much else.
After protesting outside the meeting, Bishop Seoka attended the AGM and quizzed Lonmin CEO Ben Magara. Despite describing his time inside the AGM to me as a “good experience”, the Bishop was less than impressed by Magara’s answers.
“I asked for a public apology and he said he regretted the deaths but stopped short of apologising,” the Bishop explained.
“Then I asked him for a memorial for the dead miners. He told me they are planning a ‘museum to mining’. This is not at all the same thing.”
“I demanded that the company do more to improve the wages and living conditions for their staff and he claimed that efforts were being made to build housing for all staff but there were still 11,000 miners living in sub-standard conditions.”
Earlier Magara had said:
“I believe that all our employees and their families have a right to dignity and respect. As Lonmin, we are committed to the wellbeing of our employees and have made significant strides into providing our employees with decent accommodation.”
At the AGM Magara admitted that progress was “slower than we would have liked” and claimed the low global market price for precious metals meant the company, which returned to profit last year, couldn’t afford to fix its staff living conditions while staying financially sound.
Finally, the Bishop asked for compensation for the families of the dead men.
“We called for reparations for the families but instead Lonmin has given many of them menial work. Allowing someone to do a low paid job for you is in no way reparations for what happened.”
Ntombizolile Mosebetsane, whose husband was one of the killed miners, said:
“I am now working at Lonmin cleaning their yard. Working outside in the hot sun, windy breathing that polluted dust for the very company that made sure my husband died. I am learning no skills doing this work that will make my life any better. Lonmin tells me that this job is a kind offer, so that I can feed my children.”
Working alongside the campaign groups the London Mining Network and Plough Back the Fruits, the Bishop and other protesters say they won’t rest until they have justice for the miners.
The strategy is clear, by bringing uncomfortable truths to Lonmin’s investors, suppliers and customers, the campaign hopes to shame the company into doing right by its workers. They were at the AGM of Lonmin’s largest customer BASF in Germany and will be back later in the year at the anniversary of the massacre to put more pressure on Lonmin to fulfil its promises and its duty as an employer.
This is where the campaigners need our help. Many pension funds invest in Lonmin and BASF and as pension holders it’s important to make sure the funds you are accumulating are being gathered ethically.
Even if you are not an investor, shareholders and investment funds are fragile and are susceptible to public pressure. The Bishop is asking us all to think about the conditions miners are working under and to show some solidarity for a group of people who have very little power on their own.
Bishop Seoka said:
“The investors are as guilty as the company in failing to ensure ethical practices in their investment and we will not rest until justice is achieved for the massacred, the injured, arrested and the widows and orphans.”
If you know the platinum ring is stolen but choose not to give it back you may as well have stolen it yourself.
*pictures of the Lonmin protest via Diana More
White Men Dancing is a weekly column. Kiri Kankhwende and Maurice Mcleod keep an eye on Westminster and beyond. Politics is too important to leave to politicians.
Maurice Mcleod is a social commentator with Jamaican/Swazi heritage. He is director of his own communications company, Marmoset Media, and writes regularly for The Guardian and The Spectator among other titles. He is also vice chair of campaign group Race on the Agenda. Maurice often appears on Sky News as a talking head and writes about social issues, race or politics. He tweets as @mowords
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