Lessons from a South African mine

There was an air of anticipation in the room as they filed in and took their seats. This was the second and final day of the workshop and by now the nerves of day 1 had subsided. New friends greeted one another and old friends laughed and chatted. They took their seats and focused intently on one of my colleagues who would be facilitating the session. Silence descended and then she asked the question: “What makes you valuable?” 15 pairs of eyes looked shyly down and hands were folded nervously in laps. An aching silence fell over the room. The question had been posed to the group at the end of day 1 and their homework was to go and ask wives, husbands, children, and neighbours what it was that made them valuable. My colleague – aware that a group of frontline mine workers may never have considered such a question – allowed the question to hang. Silence. She repeated the question: “What makes you valuable?” After what felt like an eternity a man stood up slowly and tentatively. The room held its breath: “My wife told me that I am just a good father to our children.” Eyes looked up slowly and then the applause began. The man – an older African gentlemen – looked somewhat confused. His eyes seemed to say: “Perhaps they didn’t hear me correctly; perhaps my English wasn’t correct; I said that all that made me valuable is that I am a good father to our children.” But the applause continued. He smiled; the broadest, proudest smile I have seen in years. He had risen to tell his story as a man who saw himself as valueless. He took his seat once again filled with a sense of his own self-worth. And one-by-one they stood and spoke. The group – predominantly men – recalled what wives, kids and community members had said about them. And they loved it! But fascinatingly, most of their stories included the word ‘just’: ‘”My family say that I am just a good provider.” “My kids say I am valuable because I just buy them food and gifts.” “My neighbour says I am just a good member of our community.” “My wife says I am just a good husband”. I do not believe for one moment that their friends and loved ones used the word ‘just’ to describe any of these incredible men; what was said about each of them was so far from ‘just’ anything. But the hard truth is that for years, decades – we have spent our time exploring what it is about one another that we dislike; what it is that makes you less valuable to me. And no one knows a lack of value better than frontline mine workers in South Africa. If any group has fundamentally internalised and accepted a lack of personal value, it is this group. I believe that it is this fact – not the reason that so often presents itself; dispute over wages – that leads to the violence that we see on our mines. People learn to interpret their value by the size of their pay packet and violence erupts when their ‘value’ is not increased sufficiently. But what option have people been given to experience true value and worth in any other way? I sat at the back of the room listening and watching as the confidence of the room grew; as men began to sit up a little straighter and smile as if they meant it. And I wondered if Marikana might have been avoided had Lonmin taken the time to ask their people the question; “what makes you valuable”- and really listened to the answers? And I wondered how much of the destruction that we see in our country wouldn’t be avoided if we all took the time to explore one another’s value – give value to another – beyond the tasks that we are employed to fulfill. At a time when mines are trying desperately to hold onto their own value, Richards Bay Minerals is counter-intuitively working to instill value into its people. This is not just good in terms of healing and building individuals, communities and the nation at large; it makes solid business sense too. By being willing to speak to the intrinsic value of the human being, this company is giving each member of its staff-force a deep and abiding sense of self-worth. And they have learned that self-worth is the cornerstone of an inspired, safe and productive workforce. This is the lesson that businesses – and most urgently mines – need to learn in South Africa. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.