“All stakeholders are to blame”… The wishy washy morality of the new black elite


“So, how to govern the poor has become one of the biggest moral dilemmas facing the nation’s democracy. Behind policy debates on welfare and service delivery, loom fundamental ethical choices that will determine the nature of the South African experiment with democracy—questions of how to right historical wrongs, what is the relationship between personal or collective injury and larger promises of equality…

And the urgency of these new moral dilemmas is such that for the democratic project to have any future at all it should necessarily take the form of a conscious attempt to retrieve life and the human from a history of waste.”

Achille Mbembe, June 2011,
African Studies Centre Annual Lecture, Oxford University (Transcribed from Podcast)


Thursday, 20 September 12

Dear Xolani,

Many thanks for an insightful Forum@8 with Cyril Ramaphosa today. I hope that your programme will continue its post-mortem of the Marikana tragedy, with particular focus on the mining industry and the fitness of the same industry as custodian of our valuable mineral resources.

Mr Ramaphosa came across as a most sympathetic, personable character, but unfortunately, as the embodiment of the new black business and political elite, he also showed the extent to which they have abandoned the poor of the country to fight their struggles against an unreconstructed white corporate South Africa. Its all very well for our elites to “understand and sympathize” with the plight of workers, but there was no sense during the interview that he–as the more progressive face of the new black super rich–has proactively and relentless used his influence and wealth to hold the mining industry accountable for ethical and socially responsible business practices.

When asked who is to blame, Mr Ramaphosa’s response that “all stakeholders are responsible” simply can not go unanswered. Lonmin is a company, and where things go belly-up in any company or organization, management and the board are expected to explain themselves. Lonmin’s management is, by all accounts, the best that money can buy. That is why their executives are so astronomically paid. So why should “all stakeholders” share the blame for the Marikana disaster, when the corporation’s decisions and policy are the sole purview of management and the board? Neither workers nor unions nor mining communities as far as we are aware form any part of Lonmin’s operational and financial executive structures. This phase (and it was just a phase) of the crisis at Marikana had been brewing for over a year, yet management, the board and shareholders failed to respond promptly enough to prevent its escalation. Surely this crisis is nothing if not a failure of corporate governance and management?

Lonmin left the situation to fester until the eleventh hour when it was clear that the longer the crisis/standoff continued, the more irreparable the damage to Lonmin’s long term reputation (and profitability). They might complain that the concessions made to miners has compromised the viability of the company. The reality is that to a much greater extent, Lonmin’s viability was already compromised by their inability to contain the escalation of worker/management conflict–to the point in fact where, rightly or wrongly, a de facto state of emergency had to be imposed to maintain some semblance of control. Management made the wage concessions it did, because the the Marikana disaster clearly sent out the message to the world is that South African mine bosses are not able to manage their socio-economic context and, in fact, are so unaware of their operating environment that they could not see the storm coming till it hit the shores. We scorecard the government on its performance, why don’t the mines get the same scrutiny?

Yes, every citizen has a responsibility to defend the Constitution and take a stand when our Bill of Rights is being violated. But each of us is called on to exercise these responsibilities within our realms of influence–where we have the power to make decisions, set policy, design strategy and define operational parameters. In this regard, not “all stakeholders” have equal power, and it is nonsensical to allocate equal blame to all the protagonists in the disaster. And despite his good nature, this is where Ramaphosa’s unwillingness to take an honest stand affects his credibility. As far back as 2009, the Department of Minerals’ impact assessment of the Mining Charter found industry noncompliance to be “shocking”. They spoke about a “gloomy” picture  which “urgently” needed to be addressed. Clearly the mining industry does not understand “gloomy”, “shocking” and “urgently” the way the rest of us might. “We are working on it” doesn’t cut it as a response.

Mr Ramaphosa also stated that the mining industry is one where transformation has been particularly difficult. This is a statement where the public must demand further explanation. This is is one of the richest, most powerful sectors in the economy, with access to capital, to the state resources (including it would appear the SANDF), to global institutions, to ostensibly the best brains that money can buy. In some ways, these corporations are even more powerful than governments, because the tentacles of their influence spread far and wide. As highlighted by Prof. Adam Habib in his comments on your programme today, South Africa is to platinum what Saudi Arabia is to oil, meaning that the sector also has an exceptionally dominant market position. So how is transformation more difficult for Lonmin than for anyone else? How does their two plus two equal minus three? The answer is simply that its priorities in terms of how it allocates resources are misplaced. Lonmin could for example have decided to defer expenditure on the new shaft to attend to better working and living conditions for workers first. Or to look at ways in which rising labour costs could be offset by other increases in productivity. Or to invest in training workers in other areas so that there could be a gradual process of lay-offs that would not leave workers high and dry but could direct them to other work sectors where there are skills gaps. Or aggressively develop projects to ensure better living conditions and alternative livelihoods for communities. Why do we blame workers rather than blaming the business for not being able to adapt to the changing constitutional environment? If mining is not able to adapt to a changing labour relations and legislative context, that is the fault of the mining bosses, not the unions and workers. It might be a difficult task, but the promise they make when they apply for mining concessions is that they are able to deliver the miracle of transformation.

The mining industry and the political elites have been able to get away with doing nothing (or the very very least possible) by mounting an arsenal of excuses as a smokescreen for having their cake and eating it. They would have us think that they are valiantly trying to keep this economy on its feet while being constantly undermined by inflexible labour legislation, the global investment climate, unreasonable worker demands, an incompetent (i.e.. African) state, any excuse will do. Any excuse rather than their failure to enact the bold thinking, self sacrifice and integrity it takes to sign up to a genuine transformation and social justice agenda. So armed with troops of smooth talking image consultants, flashy reports, knowledgeable “experts” and strategically dispensed political favours, they continue to externalise the human, environmental and social costs of their industry and direct the blame elsewhere (eg. to all stakeholders) to cover up a feudal business model that has no place in a modern South Africa.

As one Jesus Christ wisely stated a long time ago:

“And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.” (Matthew 2.22, King James version)

Well the bottles have burst and the wine has spilled. Marikana is the inevitable consequence of an apartheid business model trying to function in a rights-based dispensation where information shoots faster than lightning across the globe. What are citizens supposed to think when they hear our elites–who wield political, economic and military power–have no better response than to say they are looking into the problem yet change seems not to happen. How many reports are gathering dust “under consideration” as we lurch from one crisis to the next?  Why do we need yet more commissions and investigations when civil society and state watchdogs have produced report after report (based on solid research) pointing to the injustices and human rights violations perpetrated by the mining industry against workers and mining communities alike? How many people have warned about “the ticking time bomb” in one way or another without us seeing drastic and decisive action to address the root causes of problems. Yes it is “devastating” that forty six people died in the Marikana incidents; yet where is the devastation when in the first six months of 2012, there had already been 48 fatalities in mining, and a 29% increase in platinum fatalities.

Yes the warning signs have flashed and flashed like the blue lights on a VIP car down the highway. The Benchmarks Foundation report on the platinum industry showed unequivocally how the platinum belt is becoming the locus of social conflict due to a long list of long unattended grievances against the mining companies by communities and workers alike. Are these reports tabled in Lonmin board meetings? When has the Lonmin board decided to do their own investigation to verify whether the findings of such reports are true? Why are we not “devastated” when non-partisan organizations, academics and government departments point out the massive failings of the mining industry, including its excessively high mortality rates?

In his foreword to the BenchMarks report on CSR in the platinum sector (Policy Gap 6, 2012) Rt, Revd Dr Jo Seoka stated:

“Overall, we have seen very little improvement in the performance of the companies surveyed on corporate social responsibility. What we have seen, is a large increase in corporate advertising, large spreads in newspapers and billboards stating how responsible mining is, in particular by Anglo Platinum. Instead, all the companies reviewed here should respond to community concerns over jobs, health care and a safe and healthy environment.”

If there is anything that Marikana should teach Mr Ramaphosa and his class is that they have to reverse their complacency and wishy washy “we are working on it” approach to major national problems, have the courage to allocate blame where it is due, and use their position to force  the state to swiftly set in motion the wheels of its coercive machinery  to force corporations to comply with their constitutional obligations.  Yes the state is responsible for non-enforcement of mining regulations. Yes the unions are responsible for the breakdown in relationships with the workers. Yes, the media are responsible for not shining the spotlight more keenly on how mining companies trample over the rights of the poor. And so the list goes on. But it is each company’s management and board  that design company policy, strategy and business models. Marikana was the direct outcome of failed management and governance; that is where the blame lies primarily and that is where the buck must stop.

We must hope that Mr Ramaphosa’s “devastation” at the killings in Marikana will now translate into his forcing Lonmin to become an exemplary corporate citizen. His devastation must translate to taking a firm stand in favour of the much maligned workers so that the mining industry meets its century-old reparative debt for past and current atrocities. The amount of money invested into getting the best executives should be measured against their ability to make their companies and the mining sector a beacon for responsible, developmental, ethical, sustainable AND profitable mining. Some problems that are listed in the existing reports could be attended to in a day or two, some in a couple of months, because they require nothing more than a change in attitude and a reorganization of priorities. If Lonmin et al can not mine cost effectively without exploiting workers, violating community rights and polluting the environment, then we must as South Africa must consider whether we are granting mining concessions to deserving companies.

With thanks,
Nancy Kachingwe
(Member of the Alternative Mining Indaba. This letter reflects my personal views)