Related: Death deep in gold's belly
If ignorance really is bliss, South Africans must be among the happiest people this side of the Big Bang.
The fact that we are not is alarming; or rather very, very frightening. Or should be.
Okay, confession time: I’m distorting the original meaning of the adage. Most of us understand it to mean that not knowing about something should afford us happiness or bliss. It implies naiveté, innocence, unawareness. Here, I’m using it to mean that the deliberate decision to ignore warnings is a manifestly common human trait to which South Africans seem peculiarly addicted. Maybe it works on the same canine psychology that if I can’t see you, you can’t see me, so I shall avert my eyes, O lord.
This week came the “shocking” news that 61 miners had died at Harmony gold mine in the Free State. At least, that is the myth the National Union of Mineworkers, never known for any great fidelity to the truth, would have us believe. The facts, as Moneyweb’s Barry Sargeant (who probably knows more about mining than the collective leadership of NUM does) points out are that these are thieves, known as “zama-zamas”, illegally mining in unused or uneconomical sections of legitimate mines.
These are not wretched souls driven to extremes (though like most criminal foot soldiers, they’re probably very desperate men — desperate enough to risk their lives kilometres underground). These are criminals just like any other mugger, burglar, carjacker who plies his (or her) nefarious trade above ground. As Sargeant points out, they’re the drillbits of a highly organised criminal network with revenues topping R2-billion a year. They’re dedicated (or desperate) enough to spend up to a year without seeing the sun in the kind of environment and doing the things that claim between 20 000 and 50 000 lives worldwide each year. Mining, anywhere and under any circumstances, is arguably as dangerous as being a soldier or a cop.
Moneyweb paints a horrifying scenario. The 61 corpses were brought to the surface at Harmony’s Elands shaft together with 294 other crooks as a result of damned good “police work” by Harmony Gold. And that’s only at one shaft at one mine where gold is the commodity mined. It doesn’t touch on the hundreds of other shafts from Barberton to Barkley East where anyone with the guts and means to do so can make a quick, if unlawful buck. Dozens in Mpumalanga and Limpopo even do their own digging … and their own lonely dying.
But what has “ignorance” and “bliss” got to do with all this? It is simply that, as with hundreds of other critical facets of SA today, there is nothing new about it at all.
I was born and did some later growing up in Kimberley where IDB, illicit diamond buying, is almost a recognised hobby. I’ve spent some years in the Northern Cape’s copper belt where the metal, both refined and unrefined, is as ubiquitous as iPods on the Washington Metro.
When I joined the Chamber of Mines in the early 1990s the problem of gold theft, all along the complex and hazardous production line, was big. Member mines were losing mega-millions each year, but doing very little cooperatively because they were competing against each other. Just as banks and insurance companies, they were also reluctant to divulge how vulnerable they were or how porous their security was. We had probes and covert meetings and even gregarious jowel-flapping sessions with the likes of Kgalema Motlanthe, Gwede Mantashe, Marcel Golding and Zwelinzima Vavi to “explore ways of addressing the problem”.
All to little avail it seems. The “problem” is bigger, more pernicious, wider and better organised than ever. And the authorities do squat, while their alliance partners tergivisate. “We’re all averting our eyes, O lord.” “Don’t answer the door and maybe that problem that’s knocking will just go away.”
When I joined Business Against Crime in the late 1990s, a similar pattern of self-imposed ignore-ance was rampant, both in the private sector (which had been asked by Nelson Mandela in 1996 to help government fight crime — and formed BAC) and the public sector (whence the request had come). Oh, we had summits and conferences and multinational confabs and secret briefings by specialists from Birmingham, New York, London, Boston and Detroit. We set up, reconstructed and morphed task groups on everything from car hijacking, to white collar crime, to why there are so few cop cars available, to job descriptions for detectives, to Broken Window projects, to “Pockets of Excellence”, to CPFs and trauma counselling. We worked closely with the Institute for Security Studies (one of the finest and most respected bodies of its kind in the world), the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and scores of similar bodies and gave Powerpoint presentations and held off-the-record briefings and produced reports “and, behold, vast were their numbers”.
While there were islands of success here and there, the constant butting of monstrous corporate egos, asinine dithering and the glaring lack of political will to act quickly, radically and openly doomed virtually every meaningful widespread effort. People were even placed in government departments (at private sector pay scales) to fix the so-called “Justice Cluster” (police, courts and prisons).
If there is anything in the “Justice Cluster” today that looks vastly better than it did 10 years ago, please let us all know.
What did stick — in the sense of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Law of Stickiness” in his book, The Tipping Point — was the notion that the populace cannot trust the authorities to do their job. The same happened in New York City in the 1980s and after the famous Bernhard Goetz incident focused attention on “quality of life” crimes and the NY Transit Authority hired criminologist George Kelling, co-developer of the Broken Window theory, as a consultant (not head of the NYTA, but a consultant to). At least the NYTA listened and appointed David Gunn who started with nothing more complex than cleaning subway cars and stations of grafitti, and keeping them fastidiously clean. The results ultimately led to the appointment of Bill Bratton (later as chief of police) and mayor Rudi Guiliani getting behind the concept & getting the historical kudos.
Crime — the perpetrating of it and the fighting of it — is beyond doubt SA’s biggest industry and by far its biggest employer (and only the good guys have to cope with the added burdens of Cosatu and their meddlesome and unhelpful ilk). It has become that way because without fearless, competent and focussed governance to drive an uncompromising and steadfast ship of state, it is left to ordinary people with limited resources and narrow fields of concern to battle on as best they can. It is for this reason, among other, that we elect and appoint people to take care of this thing called democracy and all the bountiful freedoms it bestows.
This decades-long dithering — one writer derisively referred to it as the “real African renaissance” — quality seems set to stay with the Zuma government giving itself until November — seven months — to come up with yet another blueprint that will solve all our problems. We’ve known for years now what to do, but have just not done it. That’s why it was up to Harmony to find and arrest 294 criminals and bring 61 dead bad guys up from under the ground beneath our very feet.
The one uniform characteristic of our 21st century world is the incredible speed with which everything is changing. I defy anyone to tell me there is not at least one thing in their life that they’ve lost touch with because it has changed so fast. Things that seem impossible now, could be next year’s reality — ask Professor Ray Kurzweil. If we can’t even keep up with last century’s challenges, how the hell are we going to do so with next week.
November is too late. Next month is too late. Last week’s been and gone and there is no rewind function. Hey, why you so late again??