The August 2012 wildcat strike by workers at a Lonmin mine in the Marikana area in South Africa resulted in a confrontation between miners and police leading to the killing of at least 47 miners and a wave of wildcat strikes across the mining and other sectors in South Africa. The strikes occurred against a backdrop of protests from the local community in relation to the preferential treatment of migrant workers; an earlier strike at Implats led by rock drill operators aggrieved with the outcome of wage negotiations; and growing inter union rivalry between the established ANC allied trade union NUM (the National Union of Mineworkers) and NUM’s rival, AMCU (the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union).

The tragic events at Marikana quite naturally attracted international attention in the media and in the investor community with some suggesting that the incident was evidence of a South African mining industry in serious decline. The lethal use of force by police also evoked memories of the apartheid era and many were surprised that this incident could take place in a post apartheid democratic society. Yet a closer examination reveals that tensions had been growing for over a year.

The strike occurred against the backdrop of growing dissatisfaction with NUM (who were seen to be siding with management in wage negotiations on behalf of the miners) and the rejection of established collective bargaining processes that were perceived by the union rank and file to be outdated and not meeting their aspirations. To add to the grievances of the miners were a growing disparity in earnings between management and workers (although the rock drill operators who were at the centre of this incident are in the top earning 25% of private sector employees in South Africa), dissatisfaction with squalid living and working conditions and the migrant labour system.

There is an unfortunate perception in South Arica that unless strikes are accompanied by violence, nothing will be achieved. It is also the case that South Africa has the highest number of working days lost to industrial action in the world. In the vast majority of cases, workers end up worse off after the industrial action. The combination of these elements led to mass self representation on the part of the miners and a strike that resulted in death, extreme violence and intimidation.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike, fingers were pointed in several directions. The police were blamed for taking a heavy handed approach, the government and management were blamed for failing to foresee what would happen and taking steps to address a crisis in the making (considering also the earlier strike at Implats which in itself resulted in three deaths, many injuries and billions of rands of lost production) and the striking miners were blamed for failing to follow established collective bargaining processes.

With growing media and international investor attention focussed on the events at Marikana, Government reacted quickly by appointing a judicial commission of enquiry headed by former Supreme Court of Appeals Judge Ian Farlam to look into and make recommendations on all aspects of the tragedy. Government also took steps to reassure foreign investors that the shooting was an unfortunate but isolated incident.

Regardless of the outcome of the Farlam Commission, these events have been regarded as a turning point for industrial relations in South Africa. They have also changed the rules of engagement in South Africa as all collective agreements were effectively ignored in favour of violence and intimation and all engagement forums were collapsed in favour of mass self representation of the type that predated the days of unions.

Immediate reactions to the strike have included suggestions of the need for mass retrenchments, closure of shafts and more mechanisation. Others believe that there are more fundamental lessons to be learned for South Africa and for Africa’s whole mining industry. According to departing CEO of Anglo American plc, Cynthia Carroll, “The game is changing. What used to be enough is no longer and we, as an industry, need to step up to the plate. While the mining industry was facing tough times, it cannot ignore the unrest in society and let it continue to destabilise communities and devalue businesses”. These sentiments appear to be shared by Charles Nupen, the Chief Technical Advisor to the International Labour Organisation, who is of the view that “the culture of finger pointing, naming, shaming and blaming will not end until we can pull together and have a shared vision of our country with a shared analysis of our problems”. And, he might have added, a shared solution.

Judicial commissions are seldom the complete answer to the problems evidenced by the kind of events the occurred at Marikana. What happened there suggests the need for a collective think tank amongst government, management, union and employee representatives to establish how the needs of miners can be addressed consistent with those of other stakeholders. Any such joint initiative would need to address not only the weaknesses in the existing collective bargaining framework but also the social and economic circumstances at the heart of the strike, including the migrant labour system and inequality in living standards and levels of education. Finding a solution or solutions will not be easy but there could be a heavy price for failure.