South Africa: Marikana is a turning point

The massacre at Lonmin's Marikana mine, which saw 34 people die after the police shot striking miners, looks like becoming a tipping point for South Africa's governing African National Congress. It's hard to underestimate the impact that scenes once so associated with apartheid will have now they are replayed under a black, democratic government.

Marikana showed that a black life, 18 years after racism was supposed to have been banished, still often counts for very little, and that the inequality between the rich (mostly white) and the poor (mostly black) has remained unchanged – although a small black elite, from the ranks of senior ANC leaders, public servants and trade unions, has become fabulously rich.

Immediately after the killings, white and black business leaders, such as the business tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa (the former National Union of Mineworkers general secretary) and Chamber of Mines chief executive Bheki Sibiya, have called for a national debate involving politicians, business and labour leaders about how to spread economic benefits more fairly across the nation.

Nowhere is inequality more obvious than in the mining sector, the focal point of black slave-labour conditions. The leadership of the NUM has been accused by a new breakaway union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), of having benefited from the new South Africa while little has changed for ordinary miners. The Marikana mine itself is symbolic of the wealth gap. Black politicians are on the board, and through the government's Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) scheme there are also black shareholders.

Many mainstream (white) companies have devoted resources to BEE – which benefits a handful of black businesspeople – rather than spend the money on adopting poor schools, training workers, or building houses for the surrounding communities where they operate, which could lift thousands out of poverty.

The massacre may yet push Jacob Zuma out of the ANC and the presidency. The ANC will hold a leadership election at a conference in December. Zuma's opponents are using Marikana to argue that he is an ineffective leader — and that if he remains head of the ANC, the party may even lose power.

Two main opposition groups, the Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People (the ANC breakaway party formed in 2008) met on Monday to agree a coalition aimed at exploiting the rising disaffection among the ANC's poorer supporters. To many, Zuma is emblematic of the inequality between the black and white rich and the overwhelmingly poor black majority; he has been accused of spending R60m (£4.5m) on renovating his rural homestead.

Poorer South Africans continue to despair. The CEO of Lonmin, Marikana's owner, earned R15.8m last year. Rock drill operators, who have one of the most physically demanding jobs in the mines, earn around R10,000 (£750) a month, and after deductions take home about R4,500. Those with jobs cling on to them, for fear that they may never get one again. There is a pervasive sense of systemic unfairness. And as well as the black elite, they resent the fact that so many whites can prosper based on the social capital, wealth and education obtained during the apartheid years.

Combined with this, there appears to be a widespread feeling that political parties and democratic institutions are not responsive. Such frustrations can easily spill over into violent protests.

The ANC's unconvincing responses to the massacre expose the fact that the party may not be up to the challenge of steering an anxious country through this crisis. Populists are stepping into the vacuum, using black anger for political gain: these include Julius Malema (the expelled former ANC Youth League president), even though he has richly benefited from his ANC connections.

South Africa's rich mineral endowment appears to have helped breed complacency among its ruling class. The thinking among the governing elite appears to be that, if there is real trouble, mineral wealth can always be redistributed. However, the last few days have shaken this idea. If Marikana shocks our leaders out of their complacency, and they genuinely act in the interests of all, rather than looking for scapegoats, then – as tragic as it has been – it may prove to be a turning point.

WM Gumede is a senior associate and Oppenheimer fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.

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