For Nelson Mandela’s disciples now ruling the country, the killing of black mineworkers by South Africa’s now predominantly black police force has been seismic — testing his African National Congress like nothing else since they took power.
The 1994 miracle of Mandela’s rainbow nation and even the joyous, bubbling football World Cup showcase two years ago have been expunged by the lethal conflagration around Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg, where 34 people were killed on Thursday when police opened fire on the striking workers.
The ugly clash invited immediate comparisons with massacres by the apartheid regime, including the death of 69 innocent people at Sharpeville in 1960. But this was much more complex. Most people who had gathered peacefully at Sharpeville were shot in the back by white police. Many of the miners in last week’s clash were armed with spears, machetes and clubs as they demonstrated for higher wages. Some may even have fired shots themselves.
Lonmin and its workers have been grappling with a collapse in the price of platinum, with several other platinum mines shut down this year. Another complication is the power struggle between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), an iconic force in the anti-apartheid struggle with strong ties to the ruling ANC, and the recently established and more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
The AMCU maintains that the NUM has been distracted by being a key faction within the ANC leadership. The NUM blamed Lonmin for triggering the strike by making pay concessions to the AMCU. Before the shootings on Thursday, ten had already died at Marikana in attacks blamed on union in-fighting.
So the police were confronting a cauldron. “The militant group stormed toward the police, firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons,” the police chief, Riah Phiyegashe, said. Without the same justification her white predecessor at Sharpeville said much the same thing and that proved a lie: the independent inquiry will have to uncover the truth.
But the ugly clash has broader roots in the mostly simmering but sometimes explosive resentment at the chasm between expectations and delivery. For the last few years fully two million people annually have taken to the streets protesting about their predicament. Unemployment among black youth remains shockingly high at 65 per cent.
Despite millions having received running water, electricity and better housing from the ANC, in other respects living conditions of poor blacks, including miners, have hardly improved in the 18 years since apartheid ended. As in most other countries, the gap between rich and poor has widened, with in South Africa a new black middle class, including ANC politicians and ANC-linked trade union leaders, enjoying enrichment. Allegations of corruption in all levels of government are widespread, also breeding bitterness.
No country spends as much of its GDP on education as South Africa does and the ANC has doubled school attendance since the dark apartheid days. Yet out of 137 countries in the 2011 Global Competitiveness Index, South Africa ranked 130 for the quality of its overall education.
Under the ANC South Africa has made huge advances especially in civil rights and democracy, a joy to behold compared with the evil of apartheid. Yet an editorial in the Sowetan — a thorn in the apartheid government’s side — commented acidly:
“This is an abnormal country in which all the fancy laws are enacted and the Constitution is hailed as the best on Earth. All the right noises are made and yet the value of human life, especially that of the African, continues to be meaningless. That’s what Marikana means.”
Refusing my request to help organise this October’s centenary celebration for the ANC in London, a friend who had successfully promoted similar events in antiapartheid days said: ‘I don’t see the ANC as a cause anymore.’
Governing — especially given the horrendous legacy of poverty, inequality and destitution bequeathed by apartheid — may be intrinsically much too problematic to be a ‘cause’, but ANC leaders know well that they have now to provide a much better vision for their people. Otherwise others less well motivated will fill the void.
Ominously Julius Malema, pro-Mugabe, a fierce opponent of President Zuma and a populist opportunist expelled by the ANC, visited Marikana to exploit the tensions and was greeted ecstatically by a large crowd. He demanded nationalisation of mining and virulently denounced the ANC leadership for betraying its people.
This is a moment of great peril for the ANC which needs to rediscover its moral compass. unless President Zuma demonstrates strong and decisive leadership to maintain investor confidence and rebuild grass-roots support, the existing plots against him could accelerate.