When the 21st century clashes with the 15th century
Some years ago I was invited during the quiet post-holiday January period to go down the TauTona gold mine near Carletonville. It was then, at almost 4kms deep, the world's deepest mining operation and probably still is. I'm hesitant to make that claim because somebody out there in cyberspace probably knows of a Chinese mine that's 5kms deep and will chide me for poor research in the comments column below. This is the enormous personal risk we Politicsweb columnists take every week just to keep you amused.
Anyway back to what I still think is a pretty deep mine. It took ages to get to the bottom in a series of lift shafts that travel rather slower than the lifts at Sun City. Everything that is underground at that mine has gone down that one shaft because there is no other way down. At the lowest point of the mine it is rather like a large underground station.
Trains take workers off to the rock face and the place is well lit and spacious. It's only when you wonder what would happen if all the lights went out or if there were some seismic activity that you begin to feel uneasy. The return trip to the surface took over an hour (on a VIP visitors pass) so this is not a great place to be when the earth begins to rumble.
The visit to the mine included a look at the stopes. These were diagonal tunnels barely two foot high into which men crawl and lie on a thick protective blanket while they operate rock drills. The protective blanket is to lessen the discomfort of lying on jagged rocks but it certainly doesn't make the job comfortable. So the rock driller spends most of his 8 hour shift lying on his side in sweltering heat drilling away at the rock face with a very unwieldly tool. It's a wretched way to have to make a living.
Putting a price on a job like that is impossible but R12 500 a month certainly wouldn't do it for me. In fact I can't think of any price that would tempt me to spend a couple of hours going underground every day to drill rock for eight hours before taking another couple of hours to return to the surface at the end of my shift. But that's because I am lucky enough to have choices.
The men at the Marikana platinum mine aren't so fortunate and if they don't go underground to drill rock then they don't have too many other career choices. It's not as if they can hand in their resignation letters and go off and become BMW car salesman. Which is almost certainly why the tension levels have been as high as they have been at the mine over the past few weeks.
The right to strike is recognised in South Africa as it is in most civilised parts of the world. What isn't recognised is the right to turn up at the picket line armed to the teeth with weapons and a clear intent to draw the blood of either fellow (non striking) workers, management or the police.
The leftie media have, rather predictably, placed the blame for the Marikana "massacre" on the police and those wicked capitalists who take such delight in exploiting poor workers. Lefties would be the first to complain if the police didn't respond immediately to their own distress calls but the police become fair game when it's a matter of what is portrayed as the poor, downtrodden worker versus the establishment.
The reality is rather different. For starters, while the job of a rock driller probably ranks as a semi skilled underground job it's not one that is difficult to teach. So in a country like South Africa with high unemployment the supply of potential rock drillers exceeds demand which is why the price for the job is relatively low. Every employer "exploits" workers because the aim of the game in capitalism is to run an operation as cheaply and efficiently as possible and maximise profits. The platinum mining industry is no different and if the cost of digging the stuff out of the ground and refining it exceeds the market price for platinum then it's time to shut up shop.
That means that a rock driller is unlikely to be worth R12 500 (net) in the current market. It's nothing to do with exploitation and everything to do with economic reality. Take the argument to a less emotional level and ask yourself whether a nicely brought up white girl can expect to keep her job in a cosy bookshop if people no longer buy books? Obviously not.
To coin the phrase "massacre" for what happened at Marikana may help sell newspapers and give talk show hosts something to froth over but it ignores the fact that the police were hideously outnumbered and in great personal danger. To compare it to Sharpeville is a disgrace. If the police had been overrun then the media would have undoubtedly been reporting a large number of police deaths and agonising over that.
The blame for the killings at Marikana quite clearly lies with the unions and the barbarous behaviour of some of the strikers. I have every sympathy with the police and with Lonmin management who have inevitably been portrayed as the bad guys. The problem is complex: how on earth do you negotiate rationally with people who still believe that smearing animal fat over their bodies will protect them from bullets?
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