By John Campbell, CFR
Editor's note: John Campbell is a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Africa in Transition originally appeared here. The views expressed are his own.
The Jacob Zuma government is handling poorly the upsurge in mining unrest at the Marikana platinum mine, which is spreading to gold mines near Johannesburg. Julius Malema, expelled African National Congress (ANC) bad boy, is exploiting these government errors to discredit Zuma in the run up to the African National Congress (ANC) December party convention.
If Zuma is defeated in the contest for party leadership, the precedent is that he would resign as president of South Africa and there would be an interim government until the 2013 elections. Anger among the poor and dispossessed appears increasingly to be focused not on the big mining houses, but on the tiny black elite that has grown rich because of its ANC connections.
At Marikana, the police shot and killed 34 strikers and wounded an additional 178. The police then arrested 278, some at the mine, others at a nearby squatter camp. Though President Zuma immediately left a Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Mozambique and went to Marikana, he failed to connect on a personal level with the miners. Photographs of him under an umbrella in a Western suit and surrounded by body guards and aides emphasized rather than mitigated the profound distance between him and the miners.
To make matters worse, in the aftermath of the Marikana “massacre,” the acting director of public prosecutions announced the prosecution of 270 miners on murder charges under apartheid-era statutes – even though most of the victims had been shot by the police. In the face of widespread public outrage, she reversed herself, and those arrested are in the process of being released on bail. But, some of the newly released are credibly reporting in the media that they were subject to beatings and other forms of police torture.
Julius Malema, long an advocate of nationalization of the mines and expropriation without compensation of white-owned land, is reported by the New York Times as saying “President Zuma has presided over the massacre of our people.” He has threatened to make the mines “ungovernable,” an echo of liberation movements’ threat to make the townships “ungovernable” during the waning days of apartheid.
The episode is focusing attention on black elite links to the mining companies. Malema is directing his ire at a particular gold mined owned in part by Zuma’s nephew and a grandson of Nelson Mandela. Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the most important negotiators of the transition to non-racial democracy, is now a billionaire; according to the New York Times, he is on the board of Lonrho, the British based owner of the Marikana mine, and has also been a leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, which, in effect, participates in the ANC government.
In the townships there are frequent outbursts of anger. But, up to now, the anger has largely been directed toward specific, individual officials known for corruption or their failure to deliver expected services – not the ANC or the government. That may be changing, especially if the ANC comes to be associated with black elite privilege. Indeed, there is little reported anger directed toward South Africa’s wealthy white minority, the principal beneficiaries of current economic arrangements. Malema’s political strength seems to derive more from his articulation of anger at the South African “system” than his calls for white expropriation, though that may change.