In the euphoria of hosting the 2010 World Cup, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu said the former apartheid South Africa morphed from the “ugly, ugly worm” into a “beautiful, beautiful butterfly.” This month that beautiful butterfly disappeared into a worm hole, sucked right back to the days of apartheid.
In the worst state suppression of labor unrest in the 18 years of the “free” South Africa, police shot dead 34 striking workers and wounded 78 others at the Lonmin platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg. This week, 150 miners complained of being beaten while in police custody. When such things happened in the 1980s under white apartheid rule, they stirred enough outrage in America to force even President Reagan to end his support of the apartheid regime and sign into law economic sanctions, including the famous import ban on gold Krugerrand coins.
But despite the end of apartheid, mine operations remain awful. Journalists’ descriptions of the squalid living conditions of today’s mines sound little different from the “barren and pockmarked” mines of the 1940s once described by Nelson Mandela. He said, “Everywhere I looked I saw black men in dusty overalls looking tired and bent . . . Only the presence of cheap labor in the form of thousands of Africans working long hours for little pay with no rights made gold mining profitable for the mining houses.”
Yet there is little sign that today’s black-run South Africa, with a handful of connected people becoming rich, is moving with any particular urgency to change the system. Besides the police action, a particular source of anger and irony is that Lonmin, a London-based mine company facing the strike, has on its board the former head of the mineworkers union, Cyril Ramaphosa. Mandela once called him “one of the ablest of the new generation of leadership.” But in the wake of the tragedy, one miner described Ramaphosa as one of those “who killed us.”
It is a crisis that deserves comment from the Obama administration as well as action from US citizens. Platinum is far more part of our lives than the gold Krugerrand ever was. In 2011, according to the global auditing firm KPMG, South Africa mined 75 percent of the world’s platinum, with 38 percent of the world’s supply going to the auto industry for catalytic converters. “A potential growth area for platinum demand is fuel-cell technology,” KPMG said, “which can help in providing clean, reliable and cost-effective energy.” But, how “clean” is that energy if the platinum is being produced under apartheid-like repression?
Another 31 percent of global platinum goes to the jewelry industry. The list of actresses and entertainers who wore platinum rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces to this year’s Golden Globe Awards included Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Madonna, Jessica Biel, Jane Fonda, and Queen Latifah. Perhaps the next time they adorn with platinum they should consider how The Australian newspaper described the mine-worker shanties near the Lonmin mines:
“Plastic bags litter the desolate, lunar landscape. Human feces are scattered everywhere, with scraps of toilet paper caught in thorn bushes and hanging from rusty wire fences — testament to the absence of any toilets in the area . . . Women and barefoot children with plastic containers on their heads operate a near-constant shuttle to fetch water from a tap.”
There were no “butterflies” to be seen.
If these conditions continue, platinum jewelry should become the next conflict diamond. After making the movie “Blood Diamond” with Leonardo DiCaprio, actress Jennifer Connelly said in the New York Times, “It’s unconscionable for us for the sake of vanity to contribute to the destruction of a country.” Nor, for the sake of vanity, should we ignore fatal conflicts that keep emerging democracies like South Africa from achieving the greatness that they still can achieve.