Recently we witnessed the bloodiest labour strike in post-Apartheid South Africa. Thirty four Lonmin miners at Marikana Mines in Rustenburg were shot dead by the police. Earlier two policemen and two security guards were allegedly killed by the striking miners. The thirty four miners were part of a group of about three thousands rock drill operators participating in an unprotected strike demanding better pay. No one imagined that the strike would end tragically.
The miners had set their demand on R12 500 a month for the lowest paid workers, who included rock-drill operators and their assistants. After a protracted negotiation saga, they finally accepted R11 500 a month. Thankfully, the illegal strike was over. However, the deep seated causes of this strike, and several others that spread across South Africa, have yet to be addressed.
Thanks to the Marikana massacre, South Africans are being forced to debate, frankly and honestly, the issues facing the country: inequality, poverty and political leadership. Inequality and poverty are indeed global challenges. Yet, what the Marikana crisis has revealed is that South Africa’s ruling ANC government no longer has the capacity to effectively tackle these daunting problems. This is the perception of scores of disgruntled people. Critics have stated categorically that the ANC government has failed to fairly and reasonably redistribute the wealth of the country, a task high on its list of priorities after assuming power in 1994.
Today, it is abundantly clear that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. Black South Africans are still the majority of the poor. The ANC meanwhile keeps citing historical reasons for this widening gap. At the same time there is growing unanimity that current woes such as lack of service delivery, corruption and increasing poverty cannot be blamed solely on the Apartheid system. After eighteen years in power the ANC is now being asked to take full responsibility. This is being loudly proclaimed by critics and, interestingly, some top brass ANC members.
There is also growing acknowledgement that the ANC government has lost touch with the problems of the people at grass-root level. The party is seen to be protecting and siding with business entities at the expense of ordinary citizens. The Marikana miners would not even listen to The Congress for South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)’s leadership. The Nation Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which historically is the leading and most well-respected union, was also perceived as a traitor by the miners.
The one person who struck a chord with the miners was expelled former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema. He hijacked the strike to his own advantage. He cleverly and rhetorically spoke what miners most wanted to hear at that time, which was to continue with the strike until their demands were met. He also took the opportunity to restate the importance of his controversial agenda to nationalize mines. Notably, he called for the resignation of President Zuma.
Zuma’s presidency is evidently under fire. Not only did people lament the president’s inertia and lack of incisive leadership during the massacre, but have come to doubt his capacity to lead South Africa for another five years. It is an open secret that there is a major division within the ruling ANC on the party’s presidency. One faction is backing Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe as president of the party and eventually of the nation. Delegates are already lobbying for this as the ANC approaches its elective conference in Mangaung this December.
Meanwhile, as we await the findings of a judicial commission of inquiry appointed by President Zuma on the Marikana massacre and associated events, people are understandably asking if there will be any meaningful consequences. Similar commissions have been instituted in the past and little or no action was taken against the culprits. Will the recommendations of this commission of inquiry be acted upon? We have three more months to wait before we know the answer.
The Marikana massacre can be seen as a defining moment in the history of post-Apartheid South Africa. The country can transform its woes into opportunities. It is unlikely, however, that the Opposition will be in power next year to steer this transformation. The ANC is certainly posed to win at the polls again. Nonetheless, whoever emerges as president is definitely going to grapple with the thorny issues of inequality, poverty and regaining people’s confidence in the country’s political leadership.