Editorial: South Africa on the brink?

Post-apartheid South Africa has provided duelling optimists and pessimists with plenty of fodder to back up their long-standing positions. There have been unabashed triumphs — such as the country’s avoidance of Zimbabwe-style...



Post-apartheid South Africa has provided duelling optimists and pessimists with plenty of fodder to back up their long-standing positions. There have been unabashed triumphs — such as the country’s avoidance of Zimbabwe-style de-evolution, and its wonderful job hosting the World Cup — bumping right up against major societal obstacles, such as the flood of truly appalling violent crime, and the intractability of the nation’s simmering racial, class and tribal divides.

The strikes this year in the country’s platinum and gold mines, and particularly the recently settled strike at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg, are once again causing miners and investors around the world to pause and wonder what’s next for South Africa’s mining sector, which accounts for a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product.

The 46-person death toll during the now-settled Marikana strike made headlines around the world, as it echoed some of the worst political violence of the apartheid era. As has been detailed in this and past issues, on Aug. 16, what appear on video to be trigger happy police — both black and white — opened fire with automatic weapons on a group of 3,000 strikers that had refused orders to disperse, killing 34 workers and wounding another 78. Some 270 strikers were arrested.

This outrage was followed up with another in the ensuing days, when the arrested strikers were charged en masse with the murder of their co-workers, under "common purpose" incitement laws put into the South African legal code during the apartheid era. At the same time, no police were charged.

The 270 accused initially appeared in the Ga-Rankuwa Magistrate Court near Pretoria, where their demand for bail was denied to the chagrin of some 100 protesters outside.

In an embarrassing but widely welcomed about face by the National Prosecuting Authority, the murder charges against the 270 were withdrawn a week later, and some strikers were released from custody. Still, it gives everyone a pretty clear indication of the arbitrary and politicized nature of criminal justice at the national level in South Africa.

Seven striking miners are still being charged with the murder of two policemen at Marikana, one week before the big bloodbath.

At the direction of president Jacob Zuma, a three-person commission has been given the task with carrying out a judicial inquiry into the Marikana shooting beginning Oct. 1. A report is due in four months, owing to broad sentiment in the country that the matter must be dealt with swiftly. Public hearings are to be held at the Rustenburg Civic Centre.

The commission has a mandate to determine the roles in the confrontation played by all the actors: Lonmin, the police, the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, the giant National Union of Mineworkers, various government ministries, and prominent individuals and groups. Furthermore, the commission is being given broad powers signed into law by Zuma to search premises, demand the turnover of documents and compel testimony from witnesses.

Lonmin, meanwhile, is reeling financially as it comes to grips with lost production, rising costs, pressing debt covenants and a shaky share price.

As we go to press, the mass strikes in South Africa are accelerating and being rolled out across more sectors of the economy. Already some 39% of South Africa’s gold production capacity has been taken offline due to wildcat strikes, with industry leader AngloGold Ashanti reporting that all of its South African gold production has been halted.

Wage negotiations set for next year at several gold mines may well be brought forward in the coming months to ward off more hits to the sector.

Coal of Africa workers and about 20,000 transport workers are also taking part in rolling strikes across the nation, looking for wage increases comparable to the 22% achieved by workers at Marikana.

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