Doreen Gordon, GUEST COLUMNIST
As the first country to impose economic sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa, Jamaica maintains an interest in contemporary South African affairs. This year, the African National Congress (ANC) celebrates 100 years of struggle for social justice and human dignity.
However, we watched the events surrounding the fatal shootings at the Marikana mine in South Africa's Northwest Province with a growing sense of déjà vu.
While it appeared to highlight problems unique to South Africa, the dynamics involved are quite complex - with both local and international dimensions. It revealed wider concerns about contemporary leadership; political opportunism; the use of violence as a means of resolving conflict; and the marginalisation of the poor - issues which certainly have resonance for us in Jamaica.
At the centre of the strike that provoked the shootings at Marikana are the miners. Primarily rock drillers, they carry out dangerous and poorly remunerated work. Many live in deplorable conditions in rented tin shacks surrounding the mines. From their perspective, the platinum they risk their lives for goes towards the benefit of a privileged few - mostly whites. Indeed, company directors earn up to 250 times as much as a rock driller.
While they certainly had valid grievances and were subjected to unfair treatment at the hands of greedy employers and investors, it cannot be denied that the miners engaged in unlawful action, including intimidation and murder, in putting their point across. This was met with terrific violence on the part of the police.
Yet the situation at the Marikana mine - one of many mines in the platinum belt of this area - had been brewing for some time. Surveys carried out by the Bench Marks Foundation in South Africa, a company that tracks corporate social responsibility, long indicated that the conditions existed for a potentially explosive situation between the mines and local communities.
Severe problems of health, housing, unemployment, environmental degradation, and migrant labour were identified, despite the fact that international funding had been secured by the multinational company that owns the mine, which allegedly included a stipulation to develop local communities.
In addition, the reports alluded to the growing frustration of ordinary people with the elitism of local leaders. This has long characterised the politics of the Northwest Province, going beyond the ANC to include local chiefs and powerful lineages. Lack of meaningful political organisation at the grass-roots level meant that violence was a very real possibility.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is the main trade union representing the workers. This union has a distinguished record of anti-apartheid struggle and is closely allied to the ANC, yet elitism among union leaders left many miners disgruntled. They began to flock to a new union competing for their membership, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). Yet miners became deeply suspicious of both, as rivalry and political opportunism increased among their leaders.
Trade union leaders and top management should have acted sooner to prevent the rising violence. In the aftermath of the shootings, mining executives appeared callous as they ordered miners back to work because they were losing profits.
In a bizarre twist of events, 270 protesters were charged by the national director of prosecutions for the murder of their fellows, under an apartheid-era law. This has, provisionally, been withdrawn. The treatment of the miners after the shootings raises questions about the rights of the poor in South Africa's new democracy.
On a more positive note, a judicial commission of inquiry has been set up and small victories have been achieved, especially after the intervention of the South African Council of Churches, yielding an increase of 22 per cent in miners' salaries as the strike drew to a close.
At the end of apartheid, the assumption was that a change in state ownership from white to black hands would deliver a more equitable distribution of wealth to all of South Africa's people.
However, in the negotiations following the release of Nelson Mandela, an unbroken deal was sealed: political power was to be handed over to the blacks, leaving economic power in the hands of whites.
Thus the structure of the apartheid economy remained largely intact. Efforts to redress the economic inequalities of apartheid through programmes such as land redistribution and affirmative action have had mixed results.
BLACK ELITES, WHITE CAPITAL
Meanwhile, the rise of a small number of politically connected black elites after apartheid, some of whom benefited from affirmative-action programmes, is an especially contentious one. In particular, the relationship of black elites to white capital came under scrutiny as business links between the mines and the ruling politicians were exposed.
Cyril Ramaphosa, a senior leader of the governing ANC and once the charismatic leader of the NUM, now sits on the board of the company the workers at Marikana were striking against. This did not go unnoticed by his political rivals - especially the former youth leader of the ANC, Julius Malema, who accused the government of harming the miners to protect Ramaphosa's shares.
Mr Malema himself is a controversial figure, known for his opulent lifestyle. His criticisms of the high levels of inequality and poverty, however, do resonate with unemployed and disaffected youth. The discontent of the workers served to bolster his campaign for 'Economic Freedom in our Lifetime', which has not only taken on an increasingly anti-white and anti-capitalist tone, but is meant to expose the failures of the ANC under Zuma's leadership.
Recently, a warrant for Malema's arrest has been issued on charges of corruption. Some believe this is an ANC conspiracy to bring him down. Yet his power should not be dismissed - by cutting him off from the party, the ANC has effectively created an independent voice for this group.
The black elite-white capital combination in South Africa appears to have been less successful in transforming South Africa's economy in comparison to the Lula-Rousseff administration in Brazil. An emerging economy like South Africa, Brazil seems to be facing an entirely different political and economic scenario.
First, Brazil has made significant strides in negotiating racial and social disparities, combining neoliberal economic policies with a fairly successful social democratic programme designed to lift people out of poverty. Indeed, economists have pointed to Brazil's rising middle classes as evidence of a more inclusive society.
Second, traditional avenues of mobility have historically allowed for a greater degree of racial integration than in South Africa. Finally, the growth of the Brazilian black movement and its successful lobbying for policies aimed at the development of black communities have created alternative avenues of social mobility. In other words, the options appear to be more varied for black people in contemporary Brazil, even though they do not represent the political majority as in South Africa.
LEGACY OF APARTHEID
Indications are that South Africa may be dealing with the legacy of apartheid and questions about economic and social redistribution for a long time, as fast-growing economies such as Nigeria and Tanzania challenge its dominant position. The reasons for South Africa's current economic challenges are multifaceted, providing special challenges for political leadership. Yet South Africa was the crucible that gave rise to inspirational, courageous and humane leaders such as Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Institute of Race Relations recently commented that the ANC does not get enough credit for its achievements in housing, sanitation and welfare provision. On another level, South Africa faces problems that nations all over the world are now contending with.
How governments respond to current global economic challenges is crucial. As we have seen in Jamaica, there is a need for political willingness to carry out tough economic decisions rather than a resort to populism; campaigns to elevate the economic literacy of local populations; and efforts to create more inclusive and participatory decision-making.
Doreen Gordon, PhD, is a lecturer at the UWI, Mona, and postdoctoral fellow in the Human Economy Programme at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.