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Eighteen years after the African National Congress swept to power, South Africa is reliving some of the worst memories of the apartheid era. The police shooting of 34 black strikers at the Marikana platinum mine – the worst such violence since apartheid ended – will fuel perceptions that the ANC’s leadership has been paying more attention to factional infighting than to growing economic divisions and the discontent of ordinary people.
As soon as tensions ease, the probe ordered by president Jacob Zuma must begin work to ascertain what mistakes were made by police, the mine’s operator Lonmin, unions and government.
However, the tragedy at Marikana must also serve as a wake-up call to the ANC to overcome its divisions and address a deeper malaise: the policy paralysis damaging both South Africa’s economy and its fragile social consensus.
Mining was once the bedrock of South Africa’s economy and miners’ unions central to the anti-apartheid struggle. Now unions are warring among themselves and the industry’s future is clouded by uncertainty over policy.
Platinum miners are especially vulnerable: with the slump in the European car industry depressing prices, they need to cut production and lay off thousands of workers to make their businesses sustainable – all but impossible in the current political climate. Yet the whole industry is suffering from the ANC’s prevarication over the question of nationalisation: this uncertainty has made the country less competitive when the rest of Africa is opening to investment.
The industry itself must show a more human face: Lonmin’s threat to dismiss strikers who did not return to work, deferred yesterday only by 24 hours, is especially insensitive. However, the ANC must be more realistic about the challenges mining faces, and must settle the question of nationalisation as soon as possible. Further prevarication will merely play into the hands of populist politicians such as Julius Malema – who received a rapturous reception at Marikana at the weekend.
Moreover, the ANC must grapple with the long-term challenge: to revive and diversify South Africa’s economy, beset by inequality and unemployment. The violence at Marikana follows riots in townships over poor public services, and worrying attempts to stifle media criticism. For too long there has been a sense of drift in government. The ANC cannot justify its monopoly on power if it continues to avoid making key decisions.