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Fiddling in denial while a strange new tension builds

07 October 2012 - 02:05 By Phylicia Oppelt

Many of us have become blasé about strikes, but there is an ominous tone in the wave of discontent now sweeping SA

There have been many strike seasons in South Africa before the current one.

We've survived the great civil servants' strike that tested the backbone of former public service minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi; the soldiers' defiance of former defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu - the same straggly crowd who invited Julius Malema last month; and the municipal workers who defaced our streets with the trash they were paid to collect.

We've heard the call to strike from unions more times than we care to remember, seen the news flash evidence of "rampaging" workers and listened to the threats that the mother of all strikes would be unleashed on us. This, of course, usually invokes quaking and trembling in our soft middle-class hearts.

Magically, we survived all that. We have wended our way around city centres without catching sight of a horde of panga-wielding black men, financially emaciated from an unending diet of minimum wages that amount to less than a monthly down payment on our SUVs.

But this time it feels different.

This time, watching footage - on a massive, suspended flat screen in an air-conditioned office - this strike season has a new texture and nuance.

That difference exists even as many of my middle-class compatriots insist that they care more about their children's education or the council that short-changes us in service than they do about the ritual hostile display by labourers. Rustenburg and its seething platinum belt are far enough from our urban safety - protected by uniformed sentinels in their adult wooden kennels quaintly known as zozo huts - for us to still be comfortable.

But this time things have gone awry. Marikana and the gunfire broadcast on our flat screens on August 16 changed all of that.

More than a month later and we are fully immersed in the strike season with a rallying cry of R12500 caused by the Lonmin cave-in.

Perhaps it is because we are staring another term of flaccid rule by President Jacob Zuma in the face, or perhaps it is because no one seems to know where this will end apart from blaming mine owners for the contagion we have witnessed over the past month.

What I do know is that the mine owners have been hung out to dry. They have been painted as bottom-feeders who take our people and shove them into the deepest of mines, exploiting them for nefarious capitalist purposes. These owners don't keep to their promises to invest in their employees, uplift them and transform their living conditions; they even collude with major unions to keep radical ones out of bargaining compacts.

That, at least, is the recurring message transmitted by some unions and the government.

It is much easier to apportion that straightforward kind of blame than to raise pesky, cumbersome questions. Like why Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu continued to her August 16 evening engagement in Boksburg - a fashion show, dinner and speech by former home affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma - rather than blue-light her way to Marikana, where 34 men had been killed.

No mine owner is going to stand up to say that Shabangu and her officials are a joke in the industry where major players are forced to cool their heels while her department drags out feedback on mining strategies and barely deigns to be civil to CEOs.

And no one is going to say that government departments which should be talking to each other are not, and that they hardly know what the other is doing. Or that many company bosses have no real certainty about policy direction because ministers seemingly prefer making things up as they go along.

One minister will talk up the need for a beneficiation process to be introduced so SA does not remain a mere exporter of raw materials, while other ministers responsible for the implementation of such a policy are clueless about starting a conversation with the industry.

Or the fact that China has the largest reserves of chrome in the world without possessing a single mine, because it has bought up all the chrome that South Africa's struggling mines can produce and dispose of cheaply and the government stands by clueless.

We could say that mining companies are the victims of a government conspiracy but, for that to be so, government ministers would have to know what they were doing.

Zuma is not going to blame any of his ministers or accept a modicum of responsibility for presiding over a confused administration with contradictory policies. The burden of culpability, avarice and sin rests with Lonmin, Implats and Anglo Platinum - or anyone who digs into the earth for mineral wealth.

Someone like Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan can warn of the certain disaster that awaits us and sound the alarm on the painful financial contraction ahead. By the time we heed Gordhan's warning, it might just be too late. Not when we are too arrogant - be it in our middle-class cocoons or our vacillating government chambers - to realise that it is an all-too-easy road to go from being Africa's powerhouse to being the continent's basket case.