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Can Lonmin wash its hands of Marikana’s blood?

South Africa

A 2012 Occupy Oakland solidarity rally with South Africa's Marikana miners. Daniel Arauz under a Creative Commons Licence

Did a London-listed mining company with a long colonial history do all it could to stop the killing of 34 of its striking workers in South Africa in 2012? And what has it done since to correct the colonial power dynamics at the core of its business? Bishop Johannes Seoka, a representative of the survivors of the massacre, takes Lonmin to task, nearly five years after Marikana.

In 1909 it was called Lonrho – short for the London and Rhodesia Land and Mine Company Limited. Since then, Lonmin’s history has been closely nestled into the history of British colonialism in Africa. Chaired at different times by British Conservative MPs, controversial tycoons and Lords who had married into the British monarchy, Lonmin has been a dyed-in-the-wool part of the British establishment and its colonial exploitation of Africa for more than a century.

In the company’s early days, the British extraction of wealth from the continent was assumed. Whether via the state, or by London-listed companies, natural resources from across Africa would end up lining the pockets of white London shareholders, with as little run-off to local deal-makers as could be managed. Today, the money trail looks eerily similar.

In spite of Lonmin’s long and colourful history, it remains a little-known name amongst the British public. Even after the 2012 Marikana massacre in South Africa, in which 34 striking mine workers were killed by South African police during a peaceful strike at a Lonmin platinum mine, few know the name of the British company against which those mine workers had little choice but to take strike action.

Though the Marikana killings made international headlines, the stories tended to focus on ‘black-on-black violence’, with the massacre representing the biggest act of state murder in South Africa since the end of Apartheid. Under closer scrutiny, though, Lonmin was and is far from an innocent bystander to the killings. In fact, its actions are those of a company that has been able to maintain the financial relations of colonialism while outsourcing the violence of this exploitation to a supposedly post-colonial state. As in previous times, the company remains listed on the London Stock Exchange, extracting vast sums from South Africa while taking little practical responsibility for the lives of those whose blood – in some cases literally – has made them their fortunes.

And Lonmin are far from alone in this. A recent War on Want report revealed that 101 London-listed companies control over $1 trillion in Africa’s natural resources, influencing government policies in Europe and Africa to ensure the wealth is able to flow freely out of host countries. And while the money is flowing in the same direction it has since the Lonrho days, accountability from the modern extractors of Africa’s wealth remains as absent as ever.

Lonmin’s responsibility for the deaths at Marikana in August 2012 began with the living conditions that their workers gave their lives fighting to improve. The vast majority of Marikana’s 36,000 miners resided – and continue to reside – in informal shack dwellings in the Wonderkop community and the Ngakane settlement, without electricity or running water. Most are not able to maintain even basic levels of nutrition and thus carry out dangerous manual labour on empty stomachs and often with little rest between shifts.

Although their monthly wages have increased from 4,500 rand ($340) in 2012, to roughly 9,500 rand ($716) in 2017, the value of the rand has fallen dramatically against most major global currencies, meaning that the purchasing power of mine workers has hardly shifted since 2012. Necessities like healthy food, decent homes and basic sanitation remain elusive to the company’s massive workforce.

As the miners’ strike played out in the summer of 2012, Lonmin continued to tell its non-striking workers to go underground and keep digging, when it knew or should have known the tensions that this might inflame. While no-one disputes that the police ultimately pulled the triggers, Lonmin certainly laid many of the foundations for the atrocity, in both the long-term and immediate senses. Had basic living conditions been improved and had the company agreed to negotiate with their striking workers, history may have played out very differently on that awful day.

With this year’s Lonmin AGM marking the run-up to the massacre’s fifth anniversary, I have brought to London with me the voices of the widows, children and survivors of the Marikana killings, to give the shareholders, institutional investors and company executives an ultimatum. It is this: pay compensation to survivors, improve living conditions for mine workers and provide living wages for the staff at Marikana. If these demands are not being implemented by 16 August 2017, we will launch an international campaign to support the statement of South African President Jacob Zuma in December 2016, to have Lonmin’s license to operate in our country revoked.

Five years is too long to wait for justice for a crime that should never have been allowed to happen. The lives lost can never be returned, but the ones who live on must not face the same violence and indignities as those whose lives were brought to a premature end in August 2012. It is time for the colonial moneymen in London to make amends for the sins of their profits.

Bishop Johannes Seoka is a retired Diocesan Bishop for Pretoria, Chair of the Bench Marks Foundation in South Africa and an official representative of the survivors of the Marikana massacre.

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