analysisBy Sipho Hlongwane
Bishop Johannes Seoka was called upon to testify before the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, after having played a big mediation role in the labour unrest that led to over 45 deaths. He appeared for a second time on Thursday, having previously blamed Lonmin and the police for unreasonably failing to negotiate with the striking miners. This time, advocates for the police and the company tried to skewer him, but the bishop stood his ground.
The Marikana Commission of Inquiry has sat for about a month now, and though it still has a long way to go before the conclusion, we have been able to suss out the strategies that the teams of lawyers presenting will use to protect their clients. The terms of reference specifically singled out five parties: the company Lonmin, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the Department of Mineral Resources and the police.
So far, these are the sides that have sought to sweep the blame hither and thither, with the police especially bearing the brunt of the tough questions.
Given that the strategy for most of the advocates has been to deflect, it isn’t surprising that anyone who has come at these parties strongly has in turn received severe uphill. The most emotional and willing witness so far has been the Anglican Bishop for Pretoria Johannes Seoka, who met with the miners on 16 August, just hours before some of them were shot dead by the police, and successfully negotiated a wage settlement between Lonmin and the miners weeks later.
When he gave evidence a week ago, Seoka readily blamed the company and the police, saying that their refusal to negotiate with the workers was the reason why the situation ended in tragedy. When he arrived at the area where the men were gathered on the day, he received the same demand that the police and AMCU had: Lonmin would have to send people to talk to the men so that they would peacefully surrender their weapons and disperse. He then talked to North West Police Commissioner Zukiswa Mbombo, who said that he was free to try and negotiate a wage deal, but security would not be compromised.
Later, Seoka met with Lonmin managers, who told him that the situation had devolved from a labour dispute to public disorder, and was therefore out of their hands. He told the commission of a dramatic phone call he received from one of the men as he drove away later that afternoon, having failed to find a solution, who asked where he was as the police were shooting at them.
Seoka rubbished claims by the police that the men were under the influence of umuthi (potion) and were acting in an irrational and extremely violent manner.
“Allegations that umuthi was protecting workers against bullets – it’s stupid, it’s nonsense; you’re making black people stupid,” he said last week. “Most of the workers here are young people and they have been through school; they should know better, that umuthi doesn’t protect them against bullets.”
He continued: “Police in this country – there is enough to say about how they’ve tried to plant things on people, change statements. I don’t trust a police person. Police in this country can never be trusted.”
On Thursday, Schalk Burger, SC for Lonmin, and Ishmael Semenya, SC for the police, gave as much back to the lively bishop as he dished out last week.
Semenya took exception to the trust statement that was made. He said, “You tell us that in your 40 years as a priest, police in this country can never be trusted. That's a very harsh and extreme opinion. You told us that you command respect in your position. Police have over 170,000 members. You are not referring to [all] these people as untrustworthy, are you?”
Seoka conceded that his sweeping statement didn’t cover all the personnel in the police service.
“Bishop, I am going to ask you to retract that statement made in your evidence-in-chief. Please withdraw that if it is not completely correct,” Semenya responded. “You do concede that there are a whole lot of people who will attest to lives being saved by these men and women?”
Policing standards in South Africa were not favourably comparable to countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, the bishop responded.
“I find it hard to argue with you, but in this country, when I want to ask a question and see a policeman, I move on, and ask when I see a civilian,” Seoka said. He then reiterated his distrust towards the police.
The bishop’s impassioned testimony and his bent towards hyperbole gave multiple points of contention for Burger. He said that his team’s evidence would show that he was undermined as negotiator even before arriving because of the deaths that had happened before 16 August. The focus of his submission to the commission was also questioned, as it focused on the day of the 112 shootings, and not what happened before.
Seoka said that the narrow scope of his moral dissertation was because he only got involved at a later stage.
Having previously lashed out at the police for not respecting his mediation efforts, the bishop gave Lonmin the same treatment on Thursday. He said, “When I spoke to the protesters, they did not show any signs of anger. The Lonmin representatives I engaged were angry, used strong language and were in denial.”
Since his appearance at the commission, Seoka has been the target of a negative publicity campaign. His motives for intervening in the impasse have been questioned as well. Just days before the massacre, the Bench Marks Foundation (which he chairs) published a report which condemned the socio-economic conditions of the communities in the platinum mining belt. He is also the president of the South African Council of Churches, a body which had considerable influence in the twilight of Apartheid and the inception of a democracy, but has since faded away.
There could have been a publicity motivation for the bishop.
The pertinent question in this instance should be asked of the police and Lonmin. Why was his intervention necessary in the first place? How is it that amongst the public order policing unit, dog squad, national intervention unit and tactical response team – not to mention all the generals, colonels, lieutenants and captains present – not one person could be found to talk to the miners and find an understanding of some kind. All sides came with ultimatums instead. On the afternoon, the police told Lonmin that they were now treating the strike as public disorder matter, and so shut out the possibility of talks. The miners wouldn’t surrender their weapons (in the name of self-defence), and the cops wouldn’t leave the area. Was there nobody to find a way through this mess?
Burger put it to the bishop that he was compromised as a negotiator from the outset. By whom? The police? Lonmin seemed eager to let them handle the situation at the time – when did this distrust surface?
Whatever one may think of Seoka’s testimony or his involvement in the unrest, however, one thing is certain: he shouldn’t have been necessary to begin with.