Where does the buck really stop?
Two of labour’s greatest modern tragedies – Aurora and Marikana – provided a media focus over the past couple of weeks. And the latest episodes in these sagas brought to mind two popular expressions: “The buck stops here” and “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“The buck stops here” was popularised by then US president Harry Truman, who kept a sign on his desk making this statement. Responsibility for decisions of the executive and the state ultimately rested with him.
It’s a good principle, not often observed when it comes to actions that reflect badly on decision makers. And this applies to people in power in politics, business, trade unions or sport.
The appropriate phrase for all too many is “Pass the buck”. In other words, they claim that responsibility – blame – should be passed on to someone else.
We’ve seen quite a bit of this buck-passing in both the Aurora and Marikana cases. For all the court decisions and commission findings that supposedly ring in changes, everything at base level remains very much the same.
In the case of Aurora, mine workers, and therefore their families, were abandoned for six years by Aurora Empowerment Systems (AES).
The Aurora mine workers had worked without pay and on promises for months before all work stopped, and they were deserted. But according to the AES directors, the buck did not stop with them – others were to blame.
That changed last week with a court finding that the directors, including President Jacob Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse and Nelson Mandela’s grandson Zondwa, were personally responsible for mismanagement that also left 5 300 workers in the lurch. The buck, the courts ruled, stopped with them.
Surviving mine workers celebrated this apparent change in their circumstances. But celebrations were premature. They continue to live in poverty, without work or pay, while the directors continue to be accused of flaunting their wealth as they contemplate a legal appeal.
This tragedy unfolded in full view of a labour movement based on the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. If ever there was a cause to rally around and to demand action from the powers that be, this was it.
But little was done as the mine workers starved and the mines were pillaged. Today, the same conditions of desperation and abject poverty are still in place.
The same applies in mining communities everywhere. Yet the massacre at Marikana and the events leading up to it were rightly regarded as a wake-up call to government at all levels, and to traditional authorities, the mining companies and to unions.
Three years down the line, the Farlam commission of inquiry delivered Judge Ian Farlam’s report to President Zuma. He finally released it last week.
What the report indicates is that the buck has been passed to what one legal representative at the hearing refers to as “the low-hanging fruit” – police officials and others (unnamed) who may have caused death and injury.
And so the buck continues to be passed. However, the wake-up call about the underlying causes of the shame that is Marikana remain unchanged, and not just at that Lonmin mine.
Twenty-one years after the formal transition from apartheid, utilitarian hostels remain. And the slums that surround the mines are an indictment of the meagre “living-out” allowances provided by companies to avoid providing more costly but decent housing.
But overall responsibility for all these matters rests at the highest level. And that is where the buck should stop if anything is really going to change.