The Tragedy of Blaming

Regan Thaw

The dust has settled. The blood has congealed, the bodies stiffened into a grisly suspended animation, amid wailing and tears.

The cordons are in place, the investigators are on the ground, scouring and probing. And the questions swirl, boil and fly. The answers may never be provided.

As the country takes a step back from the battlefield that was a dust bowl of a piece of the veld, lost in the nebulous, brown, winter-killed geography of the North-West province, we now turn to pontification and analysis.

Many don't have that luxury of building up some distance between emotions and reality, and must confront the unbridled bloodshed. Others will turn away and flinch when visuals of the shooting unfolding appear on television and computer screens before them.

We will for months, years be dwelling, recalling and analysing the events of the 16th of August 2012, when a scene - harrowingly similar to so many which unfolded in blood under apartheid - left a nation stunned.

I won't put the spotlight on what many have labelled a massacre. The blinding light has been there for days and won't move for many more to come. I want to look at what is now just a fraction of this tragedy - the role trade unions have played.

Over the past few years, it's become a trademark of trade unions in South Africa to, like many ordinary citizens, choose to look at others to blame for their negligence, arrogance and mistakes. Many unions seem to only be able to accuse others and clamour for denials whenever their members and workers resort to chaos. Never shall they realise 3 fingers point back at them each time they shift the blame, usually in a cringing desultory manner, onto others.

Take the security guard strike several years back where people were hurled from trains if they were found not to be part of the industrial action; where for months non-striking guards dressed in 'civvies' when going to work for fear their uniforms would give them away to the grabbing hands of striking colleagues, deranged and hungry for some kind of skewed, misguided vengeance.

When strikers in SATAWU garb, during that very same industrial action ran amok in city centres, their leaders didn't even bother to stick their heads in the ground. They'd witness the rampage and move on - all the while denying it could be their own members. I struggle to recall any violent strike-related protest march where the relevant union leaders have actually acknowledged their members could've, just maybe possibly been a party to mayhem.

"It's not our members", I'd hear union bosses belch when asked to comment on strike-related unrest. Almost always they blame 'criminal elements' who have infiltrated their ranks to foment and stir up trouble.

Having covered more than a few violent demonstrations associated with strikes, I've seen with my own eyes union members smashing, beating, trashing, stoning, hurling and threatening their way through marches; hammering home their points and demands in mindless, anarchistic fashion.

Never once have I heard unionists admit their own were involved, even when evidence was provided. It's a foreign concept to our unions, where admitting to being in the wrong is substituted with an arrogant, bombastic stance akin to a Mugabe-esque scenario of blind drunk power infatuation.

In interviews, at press conferences the bosses reiterate, often clumsily, "It wasn't us." And that's that. The rest of their poorly formulated arguments result in nothing more but an abuse of common-sense, intelligence and rationality.

Even in the days leading up to the Marikana travesty, the two unions involved in the mess, NUM and AMCU, played the blame game down to the first bullet that was fired. In the wake of the tragedy, I still don't see any remarks which even vaguely indicate the two labour movements could've handled the matter better. Yes, some union officials did try to defuse the tensions, all in vain. But still, no acceptance that perhaps, just maybe they are partly to blame.

How? The answer is as complicated and murky as the circumstances around the shooting. But it is still evident. The rival unions seemed to have spent more time blaming each other than trying to call negotiations, where a 'truce' could've been agreed to.

Negotiations are certainly not foreign to unions. Yet the accusations flew, far away from negotiating tables. The two groupings seemed far more interested in calling press conferences where the blame-game continued and posturing contorted into disproportion rather than adopting a rational approach devoid of finger-pointing.

Maybe talking and negotiating wouldn't have helped. Maybe I'm being too idealistic and optimistic to think that the country's labour movement is mature and well versed enough in obviating calamities.

They are far more eager to call strikes, to throw petrol onto fires, to grandstand and flex their muscles.

I believe at Marikana NUM and AMCU did just that - they aggravated an already dangerous situation, when they should've been more assiduous in talking to members and to each other.

Unions are often accused of being too powerful in this country. They could've used their power for good or at least to mitigate a disaster, which has become a blight on South Africa. 'The psychology of the mob' as one analyst has put it, took over at Marikana; that and a healthy dose of madness.

However, as quickly as the police are being blamed by some for being too trigger happy, the country must now turn to NUM and AMCU, not to necessarily only blame them for not taking a more responsible approach, but also to ask: “Was the the posturing and the arguing worth it now that 34 people are dead?”

Regan Thaw is an Eyewitness News Reporter.