After South Africa’s Mine Massacre, Will the ANC’s Grip on Power Unravel?

Last week's grisly slaughter of dozens of striking miners at the Marikana mine marks the slow unraveling of the South African government's traditional basis of support

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Themba Hadebe / AP

Mine workers attend a memorial service at the Lonmin Platinum Mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, Aug. 23, 2012.

Politics and labor organizing were always tightly intertwined in South Africa, ever since a series of militant strikes in the late 1980s helped make the country ungovernable, forcing the country’s white regime into negotiations that would eventually lead to the end of white minority rule. Given this history, it was no surprise that the police killing of 34 wildcat strikers last Thursday—the worst mass slaughter of protesters by police since the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994—should set off such a sustained political firestorm. The slaughter at the platinum mine in Marikana may mark the dawn of a new era of labor unrest in what’s still a young democracy.

The most salient question in the massacre’s tragic aftermath was whether the government, which proclaims its “bias towards the poor,” would manage to keep the lid on or forestall new outbreaks of violence. Its ruling coalition is shaped by a “Tripartite Alliance” that brings together COSATU, the influential national federation of trade unions, and the Communist Party, with the African National Congress, the former liberation movement which has dominated national politics for 18 years. Ties between these groups have long been fraught, but now, as unions within the larger federation compete for members with new, more militant breakaway syndicates—with many workers getting increasingly fed up with the establishment ANC —tensions within the government are bound to intensify.

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

In a series of public statements, President Jacob Zuma appeared bewildered by the chaos. On television Wednesday morning, he sounded genuinely perplexed about how the shootings could have happened. “Why [was] the agitation from the strikers so high?” he asked, as if the reporter interviewing him might know better than he. Widely published images and descriptions of private security guards who had been hacked to death with machetes by strikers in the preceding week were followed by a never-ending repetition of video taken of police unleashing a panicky fusillade of automatic fire at the protesters. The grisly clashes served to remind readers and viewers that South Africa is a violent place, with among the highest rates of rape and murder in the world.

Zuma visited the mine as well as its strikers Aug. 22, his second trip of the week. He also dispatched nine Cabinet ministers to comfort the survivors, help with burials, and serve as interlocutors to forestall new outbreaks of violence. Finally, the president appointed a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to determine the underlying causes of the killings. His own political future hinges, in part, upon successfully navigating the crisis. Zuma already faces a considerable challenge for control of his own party in elections that will take place at the ANC National Conference in December.

A former ally of the president’s, Julius Malema, swept into Marikana last Saturday to pay tribute to the strikers. Malema is the charismatic, allegedly corrupt politico ousted from his position as head of the ANC’s youth wing and expelled from the party after falling out with Zuma. He told the strikers that the President and the ANC were handmaidens of the mine owners. “Phanzi, Zuma, Phanzi” (Down with Zuma. Down!),” he chanted, provoking a clamorous response. Not so many years ago, he was part of a national campaign, where the slogan was “Phanzi, Thabo Mbeki, phanzi!” that swept the former president from power. Malema lit up the crowd with a call to nationalize the mines. “These are your minerals,” he cried. “You must never retreat, even in death.” The racial subtext was clear enough: Malema wondered aloud why the police had protected the interests of London-based Lonmin PLC, which owned the mine, rather than striking black miners.

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

The massacre itself had taken place last Thursday as police were trying to remove strikers and their supporters from a hill called Wonderkop. The police action came after tensions exploded between 3,000 rock drill operators, who were supporters of a new more militant union, and members of the National Union of Mineworkers. Ten people on both sides had been killed in the preceding days. Then, last Thursday, a crowd of men armed with sticks, iron rods, machetes and several handguns, were mowed down by the police in a scene, captured on video, that was reminiscent of apartheid era slaughters at Sharpeville in 1968 and during the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

This historic resonance means the massacre at Marikana will tug at the consciences of South Africans for years. Among other things, the shooting forced citizens of the relatively new democracy to consider what has changed — and what has not changed — in the intervening 18 years. In this case, the challenge to authority, not only to the owners of the third largest platinum mine in the world but also to the rule of the so-called “people’s government,” came not from the people at the very bottom rungs of the new society, but rather from skilled workers in critical jobs who make up the ranks of the working poor.

These workers once provided the bedrock of popular support for the ANC. In the wake of the killings they have turned, perhaps irrevocably, away from the governing party and the ANC-allied labor movement. On the eve of the nation’s day of mourning of the fallen, another shadow loomed. It was not clear if the calm and relative quiet of the last several days in Marikana would hold. It is possible that the shock of the shootings, when it wears off, could lead to far more serious outbreaks of labor unrest that will prove even more combustible and difficult to contain.

Douglas Foster is author of AFTER MANDELA, The Struggle for Freedom in Post Apartheid South Africa, out from Liveright, an imprint of WW Norton, in September.

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