Blood money? Shock revelations and media half truths on South African mine violence

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Last month, violence erupted at a South African platinum mine when at least 13 men were wounded by security guards who fired rubber bullets and hacked at workers with machetes, allegedly to end a confrontation between two rival unions.

Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) is the world´s largest platinum producer, located in the Rustenburg area 70 miles from Johannesburg. The corporation accounts for over 80% of global platinum production and has been at the centre of clashes between security forces and miners since workers went on strike in mid-January over Amplat´s announcement to cut 14,000 jobs and sell union mines, in a bid to save $4.2bn.

It´s not the first time bloody protests have put South Africa´s mining sector in the spotlight. In August last year a mine owned by Lonmin Plc in Marikana, also in the Rustenburg region, was the scene of the worst violence the country has seen since the end of apartheid. On August 10, three thousand workers walked out after Lonmin´s management refused to negotiate over pay. The first incidents of violence were reported to have started the following day, when National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) leaders opened fire on striking miners. In the next three days, another eight workers, two police and two security guards were killed. On August 16, which marked the 25th anniversary of a nationwide South African miner´s strike, riot police arrived to disperse the miners. This culminated in the death of over 50 people, including 34 striking miners shot dead by police. A further 78 were injured. The incident, dubbed the Marikana massacre, was the single most lethal use of force by South African security forces against civilians since 1960.

But despite this, corporate media again blamed the bloodshed on rivalry between the NUM and its rival, the Association of Mineworkers & Construction Union (AMCU).

This ongoing vicious struggle, which has seen the two battling it out for membership and control over union offices, was no doubt instrumental in the tragic events at both Lonmin and Amplats. But there´s a much bigger story that is being overlooked by focusing on a fight between two groups of underpaid, desperate miners. It´s the story of multinational corporations exploiting human beings for the sake of profit. It´s a story which hints at possible connections between the mining industry and the police sent to kill those who dare to demand fair pay and safe working conditions. And it´s the story of mainstream media, for the most part, covering up and misreporting these injustices.

Capitalismo Mafioso? You decide.

Why strike? Exploitation, death, crushing poverty and dire living conditions……

There is no doubt that South African miners live in poverty while industry executives and shareholders eat cake and discuss where they can cut back next: more crippling job losses and pay cuts in the name of corporate growth and investor confidence.

Most workers live at the mines, sending money to their families in other parts of the country. They live in squalid conditions in company hostels or cheap lodgings nearby and are paid on average around $450 (£305) per month. South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies described the conditions in the mines as “appalling” and said the owners who “make millions” had questions to answer about how they treat their workers.  It was later reported by Al Jazeera that the conditions in the mine led to “seething tensions” as a result of “dire living conditions, union rivalry, and company disinterest.”

The International Labour Organisation also criticised working conditions,  saying miners are exposed to “a variety of safety hazards: falling rocks, exposure to dust, intensive noise, fumes and high temperatures, among others.” On average, 20 men die every year while working at Lonmin and Amplats, although reading the interim reports for both corporations gives the impression that these fatalities are only tragic in terms of money: deaths are discussed only in terms of ´work stoppages´and ounces of platinum lost.

The Bench Marks Foundation, an NGO monitoring corporate responsibility, argues that  “the benefits of mining are not reaching the workers or the surrounding communities. Lack of employment opportunities for local youth, squalid living conditions, unemployment and growing inequalities contribute to this mess.” The foundation has blamed mine violence on worker exploitation and has strongly criticised high industry profits when compared with the low wages of the workers.

30 million of South Africa’s 48 million people survive on less than 10 rand ($1.25) a day. As the President of The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) Sidumo Dlamini rightly points out:  “What happened in Marikana reveals a story that is not being told in the media. The financial officer of Lonmin earns 152 times the salary of a rock drill operator. Whilst employers rake huge salaries a month, our people who go down to drill the rocks in the belly of the earth and face death earn peanuts.”

But while Lonmin did give all miners a bonus of $200 and offered a pay rise to rock drillers after the massacre at Marikana, the general industry focus remains on luring back investors and cutting costs during a time of turmoil in the platinum industry. Last year, mining strikes cost South Africa 15.3bn R ($1.69bn) and threatened the global platinum market, pushing stock prices up by 7%. Lonmin lost a mindblowing 3.4bnR ($38m) in revenue due to strikes last year, and its shares halved between 2011and 2012.

Unanswered questions and biased media coverage……

So what lengths would a corporation go to in order to please shareholders? Who are mine security really protecting? Why did the NUM open fire on workers last year? On whose orders were the police acting when they shot to kill? And why have so many crucial facts been omitted from mainstream media reports?

Official news reports from tragic events last August suggested striking miners were a grave threat to mine security, with the BBC cherry-picking various quotes and readers´letters from the world´s media to paint workers as savage, violent and uncivilized.

But we can piece together a very different story from local news sources. Africa´s Mail and Guardian reports that striking miners had vowed to stay on a hilltop near Lonmin’s Marikana mine until their pay was raised. They claimed workers living in the company hostel were being paid 4000R ($441)  per month, those outside 5000R ($551).

“We want money. We have kids to take care of,” miner Alfred Makhaya told the Mail and Guardian. He had been working for Lonmin for over eight years and was forced to leave the hostel and rent a room so he could claim the extra 1000R. “This money is too little, I am working hard and I’m being paid so little,” said Makhaya. He added that he worried his children would “end up being thieves” because he would be unable to pay for their education.

But Lonmin executives had little empathy, declaring the strike illegal and demanding that workers either return to the mines or lose their jobs. The following day, NUM leaders opened fire on striking workers, seriously wounding two men. While it would be folly to suggest this was ordered by the corporation, it is worth pointing out that the NUM was losing membership and worker confidence because miners had begun to see it as ´too close´ to Lonmin´s management. Miners had complained the NUM was too preoccupied by politics and business to do justice to their members, and were equally dissatisfied about its strong links to the ruling ANC party. NUM membership subsequently dropped to 49% and it lost its organisational rights at the mine, but the union refused to go down without a fight.

The corporation is going to kill you….

The Mail and Guardian also reports that AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa had told workers a plan to murder them had been hatched by the corporation. During a news conference following the massacre, Mathunjwa wept and told how he warned the men they were going to die. This was backed up by miners interviewed by the newspaper, such as Lichaba Pafkalasi who said he needed a pay rise to support his family and claimed the Lonmin´s staff shot at him, killing two of his colleagues. Pafkalasi and his co-workers claimed the corporation sent the police to shoot them and said they had decided to move to the mountain to discuss their next move. At this point, in light of the fact eight men had died in the days leading up to this, many workers fearful of reprisals had decided to arm themselves with clubs and iron bars, while local residents said an inyanga (herbalist) or sangoma (traditional healer) would perform a ritual on the mountain top and sprinkle the men with traditional medicine to protect them and ´make them brave´. Important cultural differences have been overlooked in the majority of western reports, and it is crucial to remember that in some South African communities these rituals would only be the equivalent of praying to God: and God knows they needed protection.

Later in the day, police kettled men into an enclosed space using barbed wire and employed pepper spray, stun grenades, watercannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition against the men. And while details of this barbaric trap were conveniently censored from western coverage, the original Reuters report from August 17 also reveals that just months before August´s violence in Marikana a new National Police Commissoner was appointed. Her name is Riah Phiyega and she is a former banker. In light of the fact the mine is owned by a multi-billion dollar corporation, omission of this from mainstream media reports is lazy journalism at best and outright censorship at worst.

Claiming that miners were armed and dangerous, Reuters reported that Phiyega told a news conference: “We did what we could with what we had.” And although the BBC reported  that workers charged aggressively towards the police line- leaving them little choice but to open fire- Reuters cameraman John Mkhize had admitted in the original article this may not be true.

“Whether they were running away or charging it was difficult to say. The fact is they ran into the line of police. Why did they run that way?” he asked.

Unless these miners had a death wish, it seems unlikely they would have been looking for a fight with no less than 500 armed riot police who were ready to kill as soon as they had the orders. It seems much more probable that weapons were taken in self-defence and that miners ran into the police line due to extreme disorientation, pain, panic and loss of sight caused by the following, also from Reuters´original report:

“In a tactical move, hundreds of police backed by helicopters, armored vehicles and mounted units began laying down strings of barbed wire near the strikers’ hilltop stronghold, with the aim of containing them to be able to move in and disarm them more easily. Police only used live ammunition after water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets failed to have any effect. From the television footage, one white police officer in a beret and wearing dark sunglasses can be heard shouting “cease fire, cease fire”, moving a clenched fist up and down to reinforce this order. Similar shouts come from other officers. [Workers] appeared to run directly into a hail of live bullets, which kicked up clouds of dust. When it cleared, bodies were strewn on the ground, some moving feebly.”

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Murdered in cold blood at short range….

Journalist Greg Marinovich points out that many of the men had been shot in the back, suggesting they were running away. He also claims that some of the victims “appear to have been shot at close range or crushed by police vehicles.” Some victims were shot in a “koppie” where they were cornered and could have been arrested. Marinovich concluded “it is becoming clear to this reporter that heavily armed police hunted down and killed the miners in cold blood.”

The evidence for foul play mounted when the New York Times, to its credit, reported in December last year that:

“At the time, in a detailed multimedia briefing the day after the shooting, police officials argued that the miners, many of them brandishing traditional weapons like clubs, spears and machetes, had refused to turn back when fired upon with rubber bullets and other nonlethal weapons. But investigations by local journalists – and now testimony and documentary evidence at the commission, lawyers contend – have suggested a far more sinister portrait of the events that unfolded that afternoon.

“On Nov. 5, gruesome images of the dead were shown as relatives looked on. One photograph showed the crumpled, bloody body of a miner next to a hunk of rock. In a police video taken during the day, nothing lies next to his outstretched right hand. But in a photograph taken in the dark, which lawyers said was taken later the same day, a machete with a yellow handle lies next to the man’s hand.

“In one of the videos, police officers can be heard joking and laughing next to the bodies of the slain miners. Two dead miners were photographed in handcuffs. Another body was found to have 12 bullet injuries.

“The testimony also revealed the horrific violence that preceded the police shooting. A police official presented photographs two security guards who had been hacked to death by a mob of striking workers seeking to march on the headquarters of a rival union. One’s face was hacked, and his tongue cut out. The other’s body was burned so badly as to be unrecognizable.”

Like the Marikana massacre, violent events at Amplats last month are still shrouded in mystery. But Africa´s Mail and Guardian reported further details, as local police Brigadier Thulani Ngubane tells the newspaper it is “alleged” the drama unfolded after four NUM shop stewards arrived at the mine to reclaim occupancy of union offices which had been taken over by the AMCU. They were attacked by a group of 1000 strong, but nobody seems to know who this group was- or who was paying them.

At a parliamentary committee at the end of February, Amplats CEO Chris Griffith spoke only about investor confidence, the corporation´s number one priority, when he said: “If we keep having all these difficulties and we keep sending these difficult messages from South Africa, we are going to find it very difficult to ask for that money that we want to put in to maintaining our presence in South Africa.”

Once again, there was no mention of sharing the wealth.

This article was edited on 8 March for publication in CorporateWatch magazine. I noticed when editing that several of the original sources I used for research are now dead links, which is very strange indeed. Some original reports have now been edited and other pages no longer exist.  This has added to my concerns about a cover-up, so I would ask anyone reading this article to please let me know if the same happens with any of the links included here in the final edit- all were working well upon publication.

NOTE 9 December 2013: New evidence published in The Observer shows the scale of Lonmin´s complicity in the horrific events at Marikana.

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