The South African ruling party’s record in government is dire. With the people’s disillusionment deepening, the Marikana massacre could mark a turning point for the ANC

In the end, prosecutors had to give in to public pressure: On Sunday, the murder charges against 270 miners were withdrawn – provisionally, which means that the miners could be re-charged once the investigations are complete. Either way, the damage is done. For an ANC government to even consider resorting a law that was once used by the white minority government against black pro-democracy activists, is bizarre (under “common purpose” doctrine, members of a crowd that confronts the police can be charged with murder if the clash results in fatalities – irrespective of whether they shot at the police or the police shot at them). As South African political analyst Justice Malala writes in the Guardian: “The common purpose doctrine was used in the 1980s by a regime that could not investigate or police its own people. Instead, it used a heinous blanket law to bully ordinary citizens and prevent them gathering and voicing their anger. Common purpose was the last throw of the dice of an illegitimate regime.” For the ANC government to use this law against striking workers shows, at the very least, a flagrant disregard for historical sensibilities.

Julius Malema, the former youth leader of the African National Congress (ANC), called the decision “madness”. Speaking to workers at the Aurora mine in eastern South Africa, who were denied payment of R4.3 million for unpaid wages after the mine was declared bankrupt, he was scathing in his criticism of the government: “We are worse [off] than we were during the times of apartheid. We are being killed by our own people. We are being oppressed by our own government.”

The ANC government’s invocation of a the “common purpose” law is symbolic of the deeper problems under which post-apartheid South Africa labours. In January this year, when the ANC celebrated its 100th anniversary, the focus was on its heroic struggle against apartheid. There was not much to be said about its record since coming into government in 1994. South Africa has indeed made progress in terms of constitutional rights and access to health and education, for example, but all advances are negated by the fact that the leaders have subordinated everything to neoliberalism, that is to say, they favoured nation building over class struggle. Like many countries in the 1990s, South Africa took a neoliberal turn, privatising public property, introducing regressive taxation, and empowering finance capital.

The ruling elite was able to co-opt leaders of the ANC, thus ensuring the continued hegemony of neoliberalism. In the words of Jeremy Cronin, a prominent member of the South African Communist Party, after 1994 the established white bourgeoisie pursued an agenda of “late-apartheid”, which consisted of building a “buffer” black middle strata, in order to “ensure that the ANC that came into power would be hegemonised by the ‘doves’, the ‘sensible moderates’ who would distance themselves from the dangerous ‘radical populists’ and their volatile ‘mass base’.”

As part of this strategy, ANC-aligned individuals were, for example, offered internships in neoliberal corporations in the United States and then deployed back into strategic positions in government. The dominance of the financial industry has, according to author Hein Marais, lead to a situation in which finance capital “no longer spurs industrial development, but is geared at extracting maximum returns, even by dismantling or destroying industrial capacity. Its metabolism is now fundamentally parasitic.”

In the mining industry, this development can be witnessd in stark terms: workers are paid a pittance to dig out metal, which then gets turned into jewellery and dental fillings, in the process enriching a few corporations and individuals. For example, Lonmin’s CEO, the owner of the Marikana mine, earned R15.8m last year, while rock drill operators get around R10,000 per month. Union leaders did little to change this. Under Cyril Ramaphosa, who now sits on the board of Lonmin, the National Union of Mineworkers became the biggest affiliate of the Congress of South African Unions (Cosatu), an important ally of the ANC. The leadership is more concerned with the upcoming ANC leadership elections than with improving the working conditions and pay of its members. The breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which claims between 20 and 30 per cent of the workforce, accuses the NUM leadership of benefiting from the “new” South Africa, while not doing enough to help the workers.

This sense of unfairness runs through South African society. Many people had high hopes in Jacob Zuma, who took over the presidency in May 2009, but the lives of millions have hardly changed since then. The country’s vast mineral riches – it’s the world’s largest exporter of platinum – benefit only a tiny minority. Unemployment remains high: officially, it is around 25 per cent, but unofficially nearer 40 per cent. More than a third of the population live on less than $2 a day. The ANC’s autocratic, anti-democratic tendencies – for example, its attempts to limit freedom of the press – have contributed to the population’s disillusionment with the former champion of the anti-apartheid struggle. The ANC is increasingly seen as corrupt and unconcerned with improving the lives of the poor.

Thanks to its historical record, many people will still vote for the ANC, but the Marikana massacre and the government’s response to the strikes could mark a turning point. Julius Malema may be resorting to populist exaggeration when he says that the situation is worse than during apartheid, but many black South Africans will agree.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.

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