Lonmin-Marikana: the end of South Africa’s post-Apartheid settlement? – By Richard Dowden

Striking workers at the Lonmin-Marikana mine in South Africa.

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?

Heidi Holland

Heidi Holland, a great South African writer and journalist and a good friend, died last week. She took her own life. It came as a terrible and unexplained shock to her many friends and followers.

She was one of the liveliest and most dynamic people I have met. A journalist by profession, she wrote three books and edited two more. A great story-teller and observer of people, she followed the ending of apartheid closely and fearlessly criticised the incoming government as well as the departing apartheid regime – though Mandela who she met many times, was sacrosanct.

She also set up the Melville Guest House in Johannesburg which became the most popular hostel for journalists, researchers, diplomats, aid workers, researchers, explorers and, no doubt, spies. Heidi would gently interrogate her guests, get their life stories and then introduce them to each other at breakfast and preside over uproarious dinner parties that often went on deep into the night. The only people she would not accommodate were boring or unsociable people. They were told firmly but politely that there had been an accidental overbooking and they were sent away.

She is best known for her book Dinner with Mugabe in which she describes how she tracked down almost everyone who ever knew the Zimbabwean president and interviewed them. From his brother, to Lady Soames, daughter of Winston Churchill, whose husband was the last Governor General, she persuaded them to talk and produced extraordinary insights into the mind of the maverick president. But she also wrote an early account of the African National Congress, published just as Nelson Mandela was released from gaol, a book on Africa spirituality and witchcraft, and edited books of memories about Johannesburg and Soweto.

She leaves two sons and more friends than anyone I know.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard’s blogs click here.

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2 thoughts on “Lonmin-Marikana: the end of South Africa’s post-Apartheid settlement? – By Richard Dowden

  1. Maslow did us all the favour of pointing out that needs (and expectations) are in a hierarchy, and that ‘development’ is a process of raising a community up that hierarchy. Yet, as the community climbs, they rapidly forget their previously parlous state and take their new raised quality of life as the benchmark for new, higher demands. So they never stop demanding more. Even the Swiss and Norwegians want more, and so they should.

    Demanding more is not a sign of non-delivery – on the contrary, it says that people feel their voice will be heard. In bankrupt or repressive states nobody demands anything – there’s no point – they sit glumly and accept their fate.

    Mr Dowden notes the failure of the post-apartheid state to improve the lives of the majority of its citizens as a fact. Has he ever set foot in a South African township or rural village?

    South Africa continually rolls out more and more water, electricity, roads, houses, schools, clinics, libraries, child grants, disabled grants, pensions, progressive legislation, human rights, elections, no death penalty, gay marriages, taxi ranks and so on. Even state sponsored free circumcision is on offer (adult males only).

    Anyone driving through a township will notice the ugly tangle of power and phone lines and a blight of satellite dishes in the air above the houses. Puddles of water, potholes in the tarred roads, overflowing waste skips, flashy cars ignoring traffic lights…

    Nasty, ugly, messy, but those power lines, telephone lines, roads, water points, waste skips, TV, cellphones, Internet, cars and all those (free) houses were not there at all under apartheid. They are new. They are a sign of increasing access to basic services and even to wealth. There’s more, a lot more, but perhaps my words will fall on deaf ears.

    And yes, there is a lot of poverty, we are clearly not Norway, but South Africa is working pretty damn hard to bump all our people up Maslow’s hierarchy, step by step. And we don’t at all expect them to ever stop demanding more. It is their right to demand.

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