Miners on strike chant slogans as they march in Nkaneng township outside the Lonmin mine in Rustenburg May 14, 2014.
As striking AMCU members block mine shafts around Rustenburg and prevent - violently - miners who want to go back to work from doing so, government faces an impossible choice.
Logically, the authorities need to use the police and, if necessary, the army, to protect those miners who want to work. Force may be required to clear away strikers from mine entrances, to prevent damage to mining property and - most importantly - to ensure the safety of miners once they return to the surface and go to their homes. In the past day alone, four miners have been killed amid reports of widespread intimidation. (It would be unfair to accuse AMCU directly, but if I were investigating the killings, the trade union and its members would be the first place I’d start.)
Long, protracted strikes have a history of violence. Men - and sometimes women - desperate, hungry, scared, but determined to hold the picket line, insistent on their rights and their demands, weary of the interminable strain and confrontation are easily persuaded or provoked into lawlessness. Remember Margaret Thatcher’s epic battle with Arthur Scargill’s miners in Britain in the 1980s? Neither side would back down, and over a period of several years, violence was a regular chorus to the political refrain. Miners on one side, police on the other, representing the Thatcher government. The miners were determined that non-union labour - scab labour, as it was called then, and is still - would not be allowed to work; Thatcher was equally adamant that it would and the police would see to it.
But that’s my point. Margaret Thatcher was determined not only to break the miners and their stranglehold on Britain’s economy, but also to enforce the notion that while you have every right to withhold your labour and strike, I have the same right to work.
It would be too glib to say Thatcher won. She did, but at a cost. You’ll also recall the near-jubilation in certain quarters of Britain when she died in April last year. This was from the many mining communities, particularly in Britain’s north east and midlands that were destroyed when their mines closed. Hatred of Thatcher runs deep there.
But in purist terms, she did what she considered right and used the police to uphold civil rights.
Out Rustenburg way, along the platinum belt, that’s just what the SAPS should be doing. They say they are but we know they are not, because if they were, miners wouldn’t be dying.
The problem is that the SAPS is now working with hands tied firmly to their sides because in August 2012 they shot and killed 44 miners. That incident is currently under investigation by the Farlam Commission but a number of things are crystal clear so far: the Marikana strikers were not at the factory gate trying to prevent scab labour from going underground, but holding a protest meeting. A number of them were shot in the back. A number of them were shot in such a way as to provoke accusations that they were simply executed. Sharp-point ammunition was used and mortuary vans ordered up in advance.
One school of thought holds that this was nothing more than police retaliation for the death of two colleagues earlier in the month.
Whatever the eventual finding of the Farlam Commission, there is no doubt that the reputation of the SAPS has been so tarnished by the Marikana Massacre that they can simply not risk any possibility of a repeat incident. AMCU-affiliated miners know this and it has given them licence to intimidate - and possibly murder - at will. Miners who want to abandon the strike and go back underground will not be allowed to do so - in peril of their lives.
That’s a disaster for those miners who want to return to work. Also for the platinum mines which are now taking real strain. But even more so for South Africa’s economy. Now, there a distinct possibility that certain mines will close; mine owners may even exit South Africa completely. A side-effect will be that other union leaders will study the now-neutered SAPS, and conclude that violence pays. Another side-effect will be far less foreign direct investment than we need to even dent the country’s appalling poverty.
The long-term tragedy of Marikana is only now playing out but its Final Act has been scripted: South Africa is no longer a place in which you can do business, the police will not or cannot protect your rights and government, in thrall to the unions, is powerless.
Investors will note this and simply abandon this country as an investment destination. Whoever issued the bullets and called up the mortuary vans that fateful August day hadn’t thought about that, had they?