Back to blog

How Do We Talk When the Stakes Are High and the Trust Is Low?

Colleen Magner
December, 2012


The nebulous idea and practice of ‘belonging’ has had a tough time in South Africa in 2012. For those of you who have been to or lived in South Africa, you’ll remember our journey to find belonging after the first democratic elections in 1994. Many of us took to our country’s new story with zeal and blinding optimism. We moved to inner-city areas, forged relationships across economic and colour lines, and spoke a lot about the country we wanted to create together. Everyone seemed to be politicised. For me and many others, this overall mood set in motion our work as brokers of new conversations as we attempted to live, work, and tell a shared story together.

As new South Africans, we learnt how to have these tough conversations, stand up for our rights, argue about and engage in what we cared about, and importantly, celebrate together. It was as if the enchantment of our newfound identity, together with a leadership we could finally be proud of, propelled us into moving towards each other. We had been an elastic band that had been pulled to its furthest point.

Old Patterns of Polarisation

But 18 years after democracy, South Africans are sliding into old patterns of polarisation. For example, during the week of 20-24 August 2012, 46 people were brutally murdered at the Marikana platinum mine, owned by the London-listed Lonmin company. The conflict began when a group of rock drill operators embarked on an illegal strike, demanding higher wages. On Tuesday 21 August, violence broke out, and 10 people were killed in clashes between mine workers and police. The following day, police shot 34 miners at close range with live ammunition. Debate rages on about the causes of this tragedy. South African president Jacob Zuma has set up a formal commission of inquiry into the matter.

To understand this issue in context, it’s important to look at the nature of this industry and its growth. Over the last 20-odd years, the platinum industry has boomed, growing by 67% between 1994 and 2009. South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum, holding more than 80% of the world’s reserves, and Lonmin is the world’s third-largest platinum mining company. Our economy has been built on the back of precious metal and mineral mining, first discovered in the early 1900s.

Wage negotiations in mining in South Africa have had a long, often violent history. In 1982, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was formed, and together with the Chamber of Mines representing employers, these entities provided a formal negotiation platform. However, this platform was developed before the platinum sector’s rapid growth, and it became increasingly ill-equipped to manage the complexity of today’s global economic pressures, local politics, and labour demands. Some have criticized the platinum sector for having immature labour relations, political interference, and like the dynamics in other South African industries, a mistrustful coexistence between owners and workers, fuelled by a huge inequality in income levels.

Deep-level mining is a difficult job. It’s physically strenuous, and it’s dangerous, particularly for the drillers. Earlier this year, rock drill operators from Impala Platinum, another global platinum company, went on an illegal strike, unhappy with the outcome of wage negotiations conducted on their behalf by the NUM. Previously, a breakaway union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), was formed, claiming to represent rock drillers. Five people were later killed during violent clashes between police and striking miners. AMCU demanded a pay rise to a minimum R12 500 per month ($1,800 USD) for each miner. Negotiations at Marikana took over a month to resolve, resulting in huge losses for both the mines and the mineworkers.

During 2012 alone, there have been more than 200 public protests in the country over many issues, including worker wages and poor government service delivery. A number of these protests have ended violently. As the wildcat strikes continue, some analysts predict as many as 100,000 jobs will be lost over the next few months. This is in a country with the official unemployment rate already sitting at 25.5%.

A Crisis of Belonging

South Africans have reeled into another crisis of belonging. How did this happen? Whom do we blame? And how do we fix it? What do you do when people don’t want to participate anymore – when this moving towards momentum is too weak in the face of the gaping economic and social differences? When the stakes are too high, and the trust is just too low?

People are trying to find answers and a sense of security from expert opinions in the media. Each authority offers a perspective from the interests he or she represents. These pictures look very different but ultimately tell the same story: of people positioned on opposite ends of a spectrum, mostly defined by race and class. Depending on our position on that spectrum, we see a trigger-happy police officer, a mining boss fat cat, or a violent and irresponsible striking mineworker.

How have we lost the ability to see each other’s perspectives? In South Africa, we’ve been able to find our way through previous crises of belonging. We’ve done so by relying on our strength and the depth of our reflection. We’ve done so through dialogue. But this no longer seems to be the place we go to get unstuck.

The National Planning Commission’s “South Africa Vision 2030” lays out a long-term strategic plan for the country. It states:

“At present, South Africa has high levels of mistrust between major social partners. A virtuous cycle of building trust and engaging in discussion to confront the most pressing challenges is needed – one that takes a long-term view.”

As Reos, we’re asking ourselves, “How can we create this virtuous cycle of trust?” Reos considers itself a living laboratory. As such, we will be drawing together a diverse group of people in South Africa for a two-day “Learning Festival” from 18-19 February 2013. We will share perspectives on what going on around us, learn what has worked in other countries and times of high conflict, remind ourselves what we already know and how to make it work, and identify focus areas within various sectors to use as starting points for working together.

Sign up to our newsletter