A familiar ring from a precious metal that recalls the days of apartheid

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2012, 4:31am

Last week was a good one for platinum. After police opened fire on striking miners in South Africa, prices for the precious metal rallied 5.2 per cent to US$1,471 an ounce, their highest since January, on concern that supplies from the world's biggest producer may be disrupted.

Thirty-four miners were killed in the shooting at Marikana mine, near Rustenburg, on Thursday, bringing the labour dispute's death toll to 44, including two policemen. In an earlier confrontation, the police officers had been hacked to death with machetes, after the workers had turned to a wildcat union in frustration at the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the industry's main union and a powerful political force.

For South Africans, this cynical loss of life is all too familiar. So too are the questions that arise: how could this happen, to what will it lead, and whom shall we blame? What will change? Anything?

President Jacob Zuma has appointed one of his closest aides to lead the inquiry to come up with the answers. This committee will include the most senior members of his government, including his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the recently appointed head of the African Union.

Not so long ago she was on the other side of the barricades, denouncing the white minority regime.

Among those whom Dlamini-Zuma and her fellow inquisitors may want to question is Cyril Ramaphosa, who these days is a member of the board of Lonmin, the company that owns the mine. Lonmin used to be called Lonrho (once denounced by British Prime Minister Ted Heath as "the unacceptable face of capitalism", as we have now been reminded). Ramaphosa's insights will be fascinating - back in the bad old days, he was the founding general secretary of the NUM and a prominent leader in the struggle against apartheid.

Alex Lo is on leave