JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African millionaire businessman and one-time anti-apartheid hero Cyril Ramaphosa urged ministers to crack down on a violent platinum miners’ strike the day before 34 miners were killed by police, according to emails revealed this week.
The emails cited on Tuesday by a lawyer for miners arrested over the August 16 “Marikana Massacre” are the latest evidence of a reversal of historical roles for the 59-year-old, who himself led a historic miners’ pay strike under apartheid in 1987.
As a respected and influential member of the National Executive Committee of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Ramaphosa has long been touted as a possible presidential contender.
Hailed with Nelson Mandela as a champion of anti-apartheid struggle, the man who was once called “South Africa’s Lech Walesa” now finds himself pilloried as a cold-hearted capitalist in his role of shareholder and board member of Lonmin, the company at the heart of the Marikana dispute.
The Marikana killings, the deadliest labour violence since apartheid’s end in 1994, shocked South Africans and the world, drew damaging criticism of President Jacob Zuma and sparked a wave of labour protests still rattling Africa’s largest economy.
An official enquiry into Marikana heard on Tuesday about emails sent by Ramaphosa a day before the shootings calling for “concomitant action” to tackle the strike.
“The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such,” reads one email sent by Ramaphosa to Lonmin chief commercial officer Albert Jamieson.
An email from Jamieson to Ramaphosa said the situation at Marikana needed to be “stabilised by the police/army”.
In the exchanges, Ramaphosa said he had also expressed his views to Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu and persuaded her that the Marikana strike was “not a labour dispute but a criminal act” and should be treated as such. Copies of the emails, which form part of the official record of the Marikana commission of enquiry, were obtained by Reuters.
Two police officers, two Lonmin security guards and six workers were killed in the days of labour strife leading up to August 16, and police have said they suspected some of the striking miners of murdering them.
Ramaphosa’s investment holding company Shanduka Group, which owns 9 percent of Lonmin, said in a response to Reuters that he would not comment on the emails “as these statements form part of the proceedings of a judicial commission of inquiry”.
Lawyer Dali Mpofu told the inquiry on Tuesday that the emails showed that Lonmin and the South African police were in “toxic collusion”. He spoke of a “pattern of collusion between capital and the state”.
Lonmin told Reuters the emails were authentic. Referring to Tuesday’s testimony about them, it said it had been responding to “violence and loss of life” at Marikana in the days prior to August 16.
“It therefore stands to reason that the company, including members of its board, would communicate with the relevant stakeholders in government to ensure that they properly understood the company’s view of the situation on the ground to ensure a peaceful resolution of the matter,” Lonmin said.
Ramaphosa’s role in the Marikana events has drawn accusations that he and other members of the politically connected black business elite have betrayed workers and sold out to white capital.
His email calls for government action against the “criminal” Marikana strikers are in sharp contrast to his combative pro-worker exhortations a quarter of a century ago.
In 1987, as a lawyer and union chief in his 30s, he led 300,000 miners in a three-week pay strike that cost the white-run mining industry millions of rand a day.
His leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers gained him international renown as he condemned “barbaric” shootings of striking miners by apartheid-era police, and vowed no surrender in the “protracted struggle for a living wage”.
The ANC-allied NUM now ironically also finds itself reviled by many strikers who consider it too close to mine owners.
The ANC’s Youth League, a vocal advocate for nationalisation of mines in opposition to the more moderate party leadership, on Wednesday accused Ramaphosa and other “high ranking comrades” of “bloodcurdling greed” towards striking mineworkers.
“Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa has lost any credibility as a genuine leader of the people and a revolutionary committed to the cause of the working class,” it said in a statement, noting how ANC leaders held shares in mining companies.
“The criminal acts he spoke of were the legitimate calls of workers demanding a decent wage,” the Youth League said, adding: “Marikana was a premeditated murder of our people and Comrade Cyril has the blood of Marikana workers on his hands.”
The statement echoed arguments made by ousted ANC youth wing leader and party rebel Julius Malema, who has used the mines conflict to try to promote a challenge to Zuma at an ANC leadership election in December.
Ramaphosa heads the ANC National Disciplinary Committee of Appeal that sealed Malema’s expulsion for indiscipline.
In a live radio show last month, one caller told Ramaphosa: “Cyril, you have failed South Africa.”
Ramaphosa, quietly apologetic, said: “Marikana should not have happened. We are all to blame.”
Portraying himself as “the highest tree that catches the fiercest wind”, Ramaphosa also said on the show that his own 300 million rand investment in Lonmin was “completely underwater ... almost lost”.
But he acknowledged that it had been insensitive to bid 18 million rand at a livestock auction for a buffalo cow and her calf while Lonmin was refusing Marikana miners’ demands for a wage rise to 12,500 rand a month.
Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Group contributed 2 million rand for the funerals of the more than 40 people killed in the Marikana violence.