Instability in South Africa

Recent violence in South African mines has quickly become a highly contentious political issue.

South African police clash with strikers 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
South African police clash with strikers 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Labor unrest in South Africa has led to an eruption of violence in recent weeks.  While families in the US were celebrating their Labor Day holiday weekend with picnics and trips to the beach, 200 South African miners attacked by members of the South African Police Service as they protested outside the Gold One mine near Johannesburg.
Approximately 1,000 miners had been fired by Gold One in June, under allegations of striking illegally.  The protesters managed to block access to the mine, thereby preventing about half of the company’s staff from reporting to work.  As the protests continued despite police warnings, members of the SAPS used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd.
This incident comes just three weeks after 34 striking miners were killed by police at a giant platinum mine in Maikana, owned by Lonmin PLC, a British company.  The killings represent the worst police confrontation in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994.  Many of the protesters were armed with machetes and video footage showed that at least some protesters carried handguns.  Two policemen had been beaten to death earlier the week and the guns may have originally belonged to them.
In a bizarre twist of legal reasoning, 270 Maikana protesters were to be charged with murder on the basis that their actions had deliberately provoked the SAPS into opening fire.  This was theoretically possible due to a statute that has been on the books since the time of apartheid, which under the theory of “common purpose” allows the government to go after any member of a protest if one or more members of that protest engaged in criminal activity.  Eventually, a public outcry convinced the National Prosecuting Authority to drop these charges, although charges relating to public violence and illegal gathering will remain in place.
The violence at the mines has quickly become a highly contentious political issue in South Africa.  Demands that the mines be nationalized are being made by a former senior member of the ruling African National Congress.  President Jacob Zuma is also facing accusations that he has been too soft with mine owners, during a time when the country’s wealth gap has stubbornly refused to close.  Calls to Zuma to release the Maikana protesters from prison have been dismissed by Zuma as outside his authority and prerogatives, although he has agreed to create an independent commission to investigate the Maikana killings.  Meanwhile, government spokespersons were keen to remind the international business community that law and order is alive and well in South Africa, and that everything was under control.
South Africans, despite the history of violence that has unfolded in their country over the last several decades, have been shocked by the news of these deaths.  Questions are inevitably being asked about the effectiveness of the post-apartheid governing institutions and the current generation of senior government leaders.
Unfortunately, there is ample blame to spread around.  Underlying these recent strikes in an open rivalry between the National Union of Mineworker, an established mainstream union, and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, a more hard-line union agitating for higher wages.  In addition, Lonmin, as the owner of the Maikana mine, has obviously not done enough to compensate their employees for the work that they are doing and to address their concerns over unsafe working conditions.
As a consequence, the closure of Lonmin mines over the past month has put the company in dire straits financially.  Lonmin is now looking for new money to fund operations as a breach of its banking covenants looms on the horizon.  Negotiations for a so-called “peace accord” are still ongoing, as Lonmin attempts to find an accommodation that will satisfy the striking miners, their union, the government and, ultimately, Lonmin shareholders.  It has been estimated that the Marikana complex provides Lonmin with over 90 percent of its platinum output.  The company’s shares have traded at half the price they were at during the start of the year.
Replacing a white political elite dependent on high mining profits with a black political elite dependent on high mining profit is not enough to address longstanding concerns over the oppressive poverty that plagues many South Africans.
The transition to majority rule in 1994 created high expectations that the economic problems facing the majority of blacks in the country would be a top priority.  Today, South Africa languishes as is the most unequal society in the world.
The answer is not for South Africa to follow in the unfortunate and ineffective path carved out by neighboring Zimbabwe.  By resisting the populist cry to nationalize industries and confiscate the wealth and property of a handful, the government has at least not worsened the situation in the country.
However, to fully address the needs that many South Africans have for housing and sanitation, well-paying jobs, health care and education, the leaders in South Africa will need to take decisive steps to ensure that the overall economy continues to grow, while at the same time ensuring that the poorest and most destitute of the country will have a stake in South Africa’s future.
Failure to take decisive steps could condemn South Africa to a cycle of further violence and unrest that could further postpone prosperity and stability for another generation.The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.