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.

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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.

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.

MORE: Life After Malema: Who Will Lead South Africa’s Young and Disaffected Now?

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