The killing of 34 striking miners by police at the Marikana mine in South Africa last Friday is a tragedy that touches more than just the families and communities of the dead. It also highlights the failure of post-apartheid South Africa to improve the lives of a majority of its citizens.
The incident has opened up wounds and exposed the bitter ironies and contradictions of the country almost 20 years after the end of apartheid. Graphic TV coverage filmed just behind the police line went round the world and recalled memories of massacres from the Apartheid era – Sharpeville, Shell House, Boipatong and Bisho.
Trouble at the mine had been brewing for some time. A report by the church-backed Bench Marks Foundation last year revealed that local communities at the Marikana Mine were “frustrated and angry with the mining company… levels of fatal incidents were unacceptable… residential conditions under which Lonmin employees live are appalling”. The report said that last year the company sacked 9,000 workers.
Lonmin, the London based company that owns the mine, is the reconstituted Lonrho which was described in 1973 by the then Conservative Prime Minister, Ted Heath, as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. Its internal procedures at that time broke company law and Lonrho also ignored sanctions against white-ruled Rhodesia. Its chief executive, Tiny Rowland, spread corruption throughout Africa, and systematically exploited the continent’s workforce. That era has thankfully passed. But ironically, one of its current non-executive directors is Cyril Ramaphosa, the former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and the key negotiator for the Africa National Congress in the talks that led to the end of apartheid. Evidently, not even his status and skills could create a deal that would have avoided these deaths.
We will have to wait for the government inquiry to report on the causes of the fatal clashes, but I have seen no clear analysis of what led directly to the confrontation. Most agree that the strike was led by a new militant union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMC), which was spreading a militant message and edging out the 30-year-old National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The NUM is now in an uneasy alliance with the ANC government and subscribes to its broad policies and strategies. It seems that the new AMC Union and some of the miners at Marikana saw an opportunity of getting higher wages by striking and using violence. It is also possible that it was a one-off incident caused by unfortunate misunderstandings.
Somewhat confusing is the fact that although almost a third of the workforce at the mine are ‘sub-contractors’ – casual labour, recruited and paid by gang masters – the strike was led by the rock drill operators: an elite workforce who do tough, dirty, dangerous work but are not badly paid by South African standards. They, like most workers in the formal sector, got above inflation pay-rises last year.
It’s possible that something deeper is happening here. The success of the new South Africa has always depended on the ability of the government to rebalance society after apartheid by creating jobs and providing health, education and other benefits to the mass of people. On the whole, South Africans have been very patient. At first, the poorest were encouraged simply by seeing black ministers and civil servants in government. They would wait their turn.
Like two lines tracking across a graph, the expectations of the people and the delivery of the state narrowed, widened, and narrowed again over the years. But they have still not met. The clock has always been ticking and it is clear after nearly 20 years, the gap has actually widened. And now a new generation is coming through who never experienced explicit apartheid and the struggle against it. They are exposed to all the consumerism and celebrity lifestyles that the rich world produces. They want it and they want it now.
The deal struck in the early 1990s between the last apartheid government, the ANC and the mining houses was that the free market policies be allowed to continue (under apartheid this was, of course, an un-free market) but with three changes. Firstly all negative discrimination had to end. Economic opportunity as well as the franchise would be extended to all South Africans as would services such as health, education and pensions. Secondly, black people should be given an ownership stake in South African business and a greater role in managing it. This positive discrimination became known at Black Economic Empowerment; a huge panoply of rules and regulations, tax break and contracts to incentivise or force companies to give stakes and employment to non white people. Thirdly, the mining houses, which are the major source of South Africa’s wealth, were allowed to de-list in South Africa and ship their capital off to other countries and tax havens.
Has the deal worked? A short book published this week by the veteran South African economist, Professor Sampie Terreblanche, spells out why is hasn’t. He points out that for most of the last century 20 percent of the South African population owned 70 percent of the country’s wealth, while 70 percent of the population owned only 20 percent of the wealth. Put another way: in 1993, the year before Nelson Mandela was elected President, the richest 10 percent of South Africans owned 53.9 percent of the country’s wealth. In 2008 the richest 10 percent owned 58.1 percent. During the same period, the income of the poorest 50 percent declined from 8.4 to 7.8 percent. This growing imbalance makes South Africa one of the most – if not the most – unequal society in the world, says Terreblanche. “Since the early 1970s the poorest 50 percent of the population has been exposed to a vicious circle – or a downward spiral – of growing poverty, growing unemployment and growing inequality” he says.
Terreblanche blames this growing poverty on the historic political, economic and social compromise agreement between the last apartheid government, the ANC and the South African Communist Party. He writes: “When it was decided that taxation and expenditure would remain a fixed proportion of GDP, it was not possible for the ANC government to implement a comprehensive redistribution policy. The elite compromise created the space for a black elite formation, but not for a policy that would alleviate the poverty of the poorest 50 percent”. In fact, he says, it has made it worse.
Was the explosion at Marikana the first sign that people realise the pact has not worked?