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No gold at the end of the rainbow

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 24 August 2012


The recent shooting of protesting miners by police at Marikana, north of Johannesburg, prompts me to reflect on South Africa in terms I wish I did not have to.

On Friday, August 17, in scenes reminiscent of the worst police action under Apartheid, 34 miners were killed and 78 wounded when police opened fire on striking workers at the British owned Lonmin platinum mine.

The shooting followed the murder of two security guards, a supervisor and two policemen by miners in the week leading into the police action.

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Tension was clearly running high but no attempt to mediate the dispute was made. Police appear to have acted with a sense of vengeance, which is how they responded under Apartheid. The new police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, has no previous police experience; she is a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and was a political appointment.

South Africa likes to be known as the Rainbow Nation; a harmonious blend of all races and colours, a reference to having conquered its past. South Africa is a beautiful country with dreadful politics. Shackled with legalised race discrimination, known as Apartheid, for fifty years, the state enforced the separation of white and black with draconian 'state security' laws, including the Terrorism Act.

Apartheid was cruel and the state sanctioned violence, including the murder of reforming activists, Steve Biko and Chris Hani. Internal activism and international sanctions, particularly financial sanctions, brought Apartheid to its knees, saw the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and the introduction of universal suffrage, leading to democratic elections in 1994.

Members of the African National Congress (ANC) returned from exile. Seeing the writing on the wall major international organisations, such as Shell, mining giant de Beers and local business houses and banks provided financial support to the ANC to establish itself and contest the election. It helped that Nelson Mandela headed the ANC. Popular internal support for the ANC was overwhelming, assisted by what seemed like a bottomless campaign chest. Smaller parties which had carried the can while the bulk of the ANC was in exile or underground did not get a look in and they still don't.

The ANC elite and other black activists carried with them into politics, the professions, the public service and business, strong notions of entitlement, which they sought by fair and foul means to fulfil. This notion of entitlement is fed by the policy of Affirmative Action, instituted to overcome the disadvantage inflicted on blacks by Apartheid, but now seen by some as a right and used by others in positions of power and influence to provide jobs to family and friends and extend largesse which carry obligations.

The former black activist elite have, by and large, been successful. They now live in the suburbs of the whites they once reviled; forgetting along the way the bulk of the population they used to live with, now trapped, without leverage, in the ghettos. Taking their cue from the elite, minor officials and public office-holders use their limited advantage to squeeze extra for themselves in the provision of essential services or to waive or reduce minor to middling penalties.

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The country is shackled with economically suffocating and politically destructive corruption. Besides breeding notions of entitlement, Apartheid encouraged and bred violence as a means of resolving conflict and of obtaining scarce goods and sustenance for those without work , which is increasingly hard to find in an economic system where wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The majority of jobs require skills which are expensive to obtain.

At the same moment in time that the mine workers at Marikana were being shot for striking, there was a violent protest at the three campuses at the University of Technology in Tshwane. Pretoria West, Ga-Rankuwa and Arcadia campuses were closed by an administration under pressure for its failure to assist students in financial need. The students also focused on the withdrawal or failure of basic services. Interestingly the student bodies involved were the ANC Youth League, which, until his dismissal from the ANC this year, was headed by the provocative and racist Julius Malema. The other student bodies involved were the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania, which has its origins in the Black Consciousness Movement and the South African Student Congress.

The miners, who remain on strike, despite the massacre, are seeking a fair salary for the specialised, difficult and dangerous work they undertake. They are nominally represented by the National Union of Mineworkers, which is affiliated to the ANC. It is accused of doing deals with management. The majority of the striking workers are members of the more representative and radical, Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union. The NUM has defended the actions of the police. Julius Malema, despite no longer being an office holder with the ANC, went to the mine and called for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma.

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Article edited by Daniel Rawlinson.
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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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