The season of musth is upon us

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Over the past days, at least nine people have died in clashes at Lonmin's Marikana mine in the North West province — two police officers, two security guards, three protesters and two other men. Two of them were hacked to death with pangas.

Stories like this fascinate me.

It's not about the untimely loss of life because that's always regrettable whether someone dies by violence or by accident. When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled, says the East African proverb.

And my fascination around the clashes in the North West is, where are the elephants?1

Think about it. Crowd-based spontaneous violence can erupt at a moment's notice — as an example, witness clashes between Amakhosi and Bucs supporters when referees make decisions that go the wrong way for one side.

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But orchestrated sustained violence of the type that has been playing itself out in the North West over the past months is far more difficult to sustain. It has to be planned, coordinated, and executed. That does not happen on the ground.

I say orchestrated and sustained because this conflict has been playing itself out at least since the beginning of this year. In mid-February, around 5000 protesting miners blockaded roads and burnt tyres at Impala Platinum's Rustenberg mine. One person was killed the night before.

But this was an illegal strike that had begun almost one month before on January 20. Six weeks later, the strike was still under way with Implats reporting a R2billion loss of revenue as a result.

So let's pull back slightly, zoom out of the picture, and try to get a bigger view of what's happening.

Nominally, there is a new young bull in the terrain. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union has been steadily increasing its footprint in what was once the unassailable territory of the National Union of Mineworkers. It was a clash for membership between these two that sparked the wildcat strike at Implants in January and which is now behind the clash at Lonmin.

When two elephant bulls engage in a territorial dispute, there are only three possible outcomes — the challenger gets killed, or the incumbent gets killed, or both are so grievously wounded that they subdivide their territory.

AMCU has thus far shown that it has enough strength to stay in the fight for more that six months. Num on the other hand is too big to be so quickly toppled. I expect a short-term demarcation of territory will take place, but many more lives are yet to be lost.

But is there a still bigger picture? Let's pull back further.

Num is the biggest union in this country representing the bulk of Cosatu's membership. Cosatu, in the form of Secretary General Zwelenzima Vavi, has been building a sustained campaign against President Jacob Zuma over the past period.

At stake is whether or not the country takes the road of the National Planning Commission headed by Trevor Manuel — which recognises that a bloated inefficient public sector is holding back GDP growth. Vavi knows full well though that the same bloated inefficient public sector is his power base.

Zuma, on the other hand, is no fool. Recognising the hostility from Cosatu, he simply bypassed Vavi and went straight to its powerbase in Num. At its May conference, Num endorsed Jacob Zuma as their candidate for ANC president.

Two weeks ago, the Limpopo region of teachers union Sadtu attacked Vavi in a statement – an action which Vavi himself described as unprecedented in Cosatu's 27 year history.

This week, we see the mine clashes in the North West.

To my mind, all of these events are building up to two things. The first is Cosatu's national conference next month which will see Vavi standing for re-election for an unprecedented fourth term. The second is the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung in December which will see Zuma standing for re-election for a second term.

If Num is weakened ahead of next month's Cosatu conference, Vavi is a shoe-in for re-election. If Vavi is strongly in place come December, Zuma is in for a rough ride.

Now ask yourself, who stands most to gain by destabilisation of Num?

I can see the elephants in the room. Can you?

  • 1. The print version of this article was headlined "Zoom out and look for elephants".