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.

Under apartheid, the ANC new exactly where it stood when miners went on strike: The workers were the most exploited sector of the working class, toiling in brutal conditions, their quiescence enforced by a violent white minority regime. When miners, or any other workers, found the courage to down tools, they could always count on the backing of the ANC. Things have changed. The perception has grown at the grassroots that the ANC, in government, is less responsive to its working class electorate than it is to the needs of a corporate leadership on whose investment the country’s prospects may depend. The National Union of Mineworkers — today a key political bloc within the ruling party, accused by even many sympathetic critics of having become too deeply embroiled in ANC factional rivalry at the expense of fighting its members’ corner — opposed the wildcat strike behind wage demands deemed “unrealistic.” Many ANC activists were also sympathetic to the plight of the police who fired in a moment of panic on a crowd of men charging them with machetes, who had hacked to death two policemen earlier in the strike, and who had been given potions by sangomas (traditional healers) that, they believed, made them invincible to police bullets.

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South Africa produces some 70% of the world’s platinum supply, and the mining sector remains at the heart of the South African economy. It is a sector whose profitability has long relied on keeping down labor costs. “This is a critical moment for South Africa’s mining industry,” noted the Financial Times‘ columnist Lex this week, describing falling profits and demand as a result of the slowdown of production in the European auto industry (platinum is used in the catalytic converters of diesel engines). “The financial rationale for platinum mining is fading… One reason is rising labor costs. Industry players say wages for miners have risen by 40 percent during the past five years, yet industrial unrest continues.” In a separate editorial, the FT urged Zuma’s government to get things in order: “With the slump in the European car industry depressing prices,” it wrote, “[mining companies] need to cut production and lay off thousands of workers to make their businesses sustainable – all but impossible in the current political climate.”

The FT, like the captains of South African industry, are increasingly worried about the “political climate” created by the ANC. The unspoken deal between the liberation movement and the white corporate elite wasn’t simply that the ANC would leave the basic structure of the apartheid-era economy untouched in exchange for a few seats in the boardroom; it was also that the ANC would — to borrow a phrase from economist Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of the more famous president but a scathing critic of his economic policies — “placate the poor” through directing tax revenues to social spending and development efforts. Placate the poor, Mbeki noted, and also buy their votes.

The violence at Marikana was a dramatic illustration of how badly that deal has gone awry, producing images of reminiscent of the turmoil of the late-apartheid era that will have fueled unease among many in the ANC, and also in the white-dominated corporate power centers reliant on the ANC’s ability to maintain the social stability necessary to protect their investments. “If the ANC is perceived by the impoverished majority as having failed them because of being corrupt and self-serving,” warns Borain, “and if those tax revenues are not reaching the poor but instead are bolstering an elite, the political risk for investors grows.”

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The political risk to the ANC may be even more acute. It’s only August, but his year has already seen more street protests in South Africa than any year since the ANC was voted into power in 1994 — and most of those protests have targeted ANC-run local authorities (many of them corrupt) over failure to deliver on services. Corruption by township-level ANC leaders may also be fueled by a perception that the party’s top dogs are enriching themselves. And the economic policies to which the movement remains wedded offer little prospect of raising the majority of its supporters out of poverty. The erstwhile liberation movement and global icon of racial reconciliation finds itself adrift in uncharted waters, as the ruling party of a dangerously unequal society whose inequalities can no longer credibly be blamed on white minority rule — at least not in the eyes of a post-apartheid generation that has known only ANC rule, and increasingly sees its failures as a product of the self-aggrandizement of its leaders.

It was fear of exactly the sort of popular backlash now brewing that led to Mbeki’s 2007 ouster by a coalition that rallied behind Zuma — himself once the subject of a high-profile corruption investigation that was eventually dropped — ostensibly in order to save the ANC. “They accused Mbeki of having abandoned the poor,” says Borain. “But those who toppled him haven’t changed much, creating the impression that they championed the cause of the marginalized simply to win control for themselves over the patronage networks. ” Now, as the party prepares for its December conference, Zuma faces a similar revolt, and may well suffer the same fate that he and his supporters inflicted on Mbeki. But there’s no reason to believe that his departure would change anything but the personnel at the top, given the track record of many of those leading the charge.

Still, the bloodbath at Marikana may have served as a wake-up call: Maintaining the inequalities in wealth and economic power of the apartheid era leads, inevitably, to a violence born of despair. To the extent that, in the eyes of a new generation, the ANC becomes identified with injustice and inequality rather than emancipation, the ruling party is in deep, deep trouble — as is the society around it. Addressing the issue of social inequality equality was, as Zuma noted in June, essentially postponed in the interests of economic stability during the ’90s. If anything, economic conditions today are even less auspicious for a renegotiation of South Africa’s social contract. When people are being killed in what are essentially clashes over the distribution of wealth, a new national conversation can’t wait.

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