As South Africa Reels from Mine Shootings, Social Inequality Threatens to Undo the Post-Apartheid ‘Miracle’

To the extent that the ANC becomes identified with injustice, rather than emancipation, the ruling party is in deep, deep trouble.

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Striking miners listen to the ministerial task team,not pictured, outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, Aug. 21, 2012.

A series of police massacres from the 1960s to the 1980s helped seal the fate of white minority rule in South Africa, so it’s hardly surprising that last week’s killing of 34 striking mine workers has left the ANC government politically paralyzed: It was the erstwhile liberation movement — now  the ruling party — that sent the police to break up a strike at the Marikana platinum mine outside Rustenberg, where the resulting confrontation turned into a bloodbath. In the days since, the ANC leadership — so quick, usually, to rally in support of traumatized communities — has reportedly been conspicuous by its absence, only fueling the rage of the miners and their supporters. President Jacob Zuma has called for calm, for mourning and soul-searching, and for an investigation. But Zuma will know as well as anyone that the Marikana shootings may yet prove to be the symbolic moment that signaled the unraveling of South Africa’s post-apartheid social contract.

“The shootings at Marikana symbolize the failure of the promise of the ANC in the eyes of many of those that voted for it,” says Nic Borain, a Cape Town-based political risk analyst for BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities. “There’s rising anxiety within the ruling party over its failure to improve the lives of the poorest South Africans, among whom there’s a growing sentiment that liberation has been a mirage, that they’ve been tricked by an ANC leadership that has busied itself with taking personal advantage of every economic advantage that flows from its control of state power. In many state-owned enterprises and the public sector, there is activity that’s very difficult to distinguish from looting.”

(PHOTOS: In South Africa, Police Fire on Striking Mineworkers)

But such “redistribution” is hardly reaching the vast majority of black people, more of whom live below the poverty line today than did under apartheid. The World Bank this year named South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world, with the wealthiest 10% of the population earning almost 60% of its total income, while the bottom half of the population earns less than 8%. There are currently 18 million people working in South Africa, and 20 million of working age with no jobs.

Even President Zuma was forced to acknowledge, in a speech two months ago, that a result of decisions taken by the ANC to secure economic stability and investor confidence when it first took over the reins of government, “the economic power relations of the apartheid era have in the main remained intact.” That, of course, was the subtext papered over by what was hailed in the Western media as “Mandela miracle” of national reconciliation.”In the negotiations that had followed the release of Nelson Mandela and unbanning of the ANC, the parties sealed an unspoken deal,” writes the BBC’s Martin Plaut. “This handed political power to the black majority and left economic power in the hands of whites. There was to be no seizure of white assets, although there were, of course, plans to gradually achieve a more equitable balance of wealth.”

But under the stewardship of Mandela’s successor, former President Thabo Mbeki, the ANC abandoned plans for a more social-democratic redistributive strategy for economic growth, and embraced the neo-liberal orthodoxies that pleased global capital markets whose investment was deemed essential. The emphasis in redistribution, under the rubric of the policy known as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), was on promoting black ownership within the existing — highly unequal — economic structure. BEE made instant tycoons of a handful of politically connected black power players. If the apartheid-era economic inequalities were to remain in place, at least their beneficiaries would now include — as a very junior partner — a small black elite associated with the ANC. The deal worked for those it benefited, and also for the corporate titans who saw the obvious benefit in giving the ANC a stake in maintaining the economic status quo.

(MORE: South Africa’s Police Open Fire on Striking Miners: The Video)

Today, when poor South Africans look at the ANC, they no longer see a party led by people just like them; instead, they see a party led by a new black elite that has enriched itself by virtue of its access to political power. “Senior ANC officials, politicians and ministers now see holding public office as no bar to owning outside interests,” notes Plaut.  “In August 2011, it was reported that about three-quarters of the cabinet had financial interests outside their main occupations. So did 59 per cent of the country’s 400 members of parliament. Mr Zuma has been criticised for allowing his family to become so overtly involved in business.”

There was a sense of irony, but no surprise, at the fact that among the shareholders of Lonmin, owner of the Marikana mine, is Cyril Ramaphosa, founder of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s and erstwhile heir-apparent to the ANC leadership — and, since liberation, one of the richest men in South Africa. Ramaphosa’s company pledged R2 million to help with the funerals of the slain miners, but political rivals such as the ousted ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, weren’t about to let pass an opportunity for populist demagoguery, charging that the miners had been killed to protect Ramaphosa’s shares, and calling for the resignation of President Zuma, Malema’s arch nemesis. Malema also reiterated his signature demand for the nationalization of the mines, taking advantage of the absence of the mainstream ANC from the scene to make a canny comeback into the national spotlight.

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