/ 30 August 2012

Deep Read: A World Upside Down

Then the general secretary of the NUM
Then the general secretary of the NUM

Today – Thursday, August 30 – marks the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of South Africa's largest industrial strike.

For three weeks in August 1987, South Africa's gold and coal mining sectors were crippled as 360 000 workers heeded the call of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to down tools and walk off the job.  

Led by a formidable general secretary, Cyril Ramaphosa, the NUM struck at the core of South Africa's minerals complex, highlighting the plight of poor, black mine workers, and underlining the political and social unsustainability of inequality and pervasive poverty in South African society.

Twenty-five years later, the world has turned upside down: 270 striking platinum miners now face charges of murder in relation to the deaths of 34 fraternal workers killed under a police fusillade in three deadly minutes at Lonmin's Marikana mine.

Ramaphosa, unshackled from the struggle against apartheid and its racist economy, is worth an estimated R1.9-billion (2010), a significant owner of the means of extractive production, overseeing and managing a network of multinational mining interests that orchestrate the working lives of tens of thousands of black mineworkers.

The strike at Marikana is framed by the interconnected realities of widespread poverty, deep inequality, the contemporary politics of trade unions and the ANC, and a continuum of structural violence visited upon the rural poor of Southern Africa. 

To turn our world the right side up, the killing at Marikana must serve as a catalyst for re-examining what constitutes "leadership" in South Africa's business community, and the relationships between elites forged so quickly in the name of "transforming" South Africa's economy. 

Ramaphosa sits, inter alia, on the board of Lonmin PLC, the British domiciled, contemporary incarnation of the London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company, once branded the "unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism" by then British Prime Minister, Edward Heath. In the face of an antecedent wildcat strike, Lonmin sacked 9 000 workers in 2011, an action deemed acceptable in South Africa.

It is easy to romanticise the leadership of the South African struggle for freedom. Even our leaders were, no doubt, naïve to the task ahead, and the changes that would be visited upon them and their comrades.  A scene in the remarkable film "The Long Journey of Clement Zulu"  documenting the lives of ANC leadership in the aftermath of exile and imprisonment, is instructive: Nelson Mandela sits at Ahmed Kathrada's kitchen table in Lenasia, surrounded by his political confidantes in the process of negotiating a democratic and inclusive South Africa – a literal kitchen Cabinet at home in, and alive to the communities that projected into the ANC the legitimacy and authority that powered the heady days of transition.

The Long Journey of Clement Zulu from Flying Fish on Vimeo.

In Mangaung a very different leadership will preside, and face re-election, at the ANC's national conference.  Millionaires will crowd the VIP lounge with cheque books and brown envelopes, extracting influence and bagging the networking opportunities presumed to guarantee government contracts; Porches, BMWs and Mercs will be waved through crowds of bussed-in comrades to overwhelm parking lots; and bodyguards will scythe through the assembled masses to ensure their principal's presence at overflowing buffets: The ANC, a self-styled custodian of the interests of the poor, at sea in the competing concerns and grievances of billionaires and the indigent.

The perversions of the apartheid economy had architects who protected and advanced the interests of white workers, and white bosses. Policies and personages could be identified and struggled against, and small victories won. The mining strike of 1987 should be celebrated as one such victory on the path to inclusive democracy and dignified work.

But South Africa's transition to democracy largely absolved the champions of industry of complicity in the impoverishment of millions.

The reproduction of material indigence and inequality now appear spontaneously in an authorless economy, the product of "labour rigidity", "selfish" trade unions, and voluntary sloth.

A recent, and prescient, interrogation by Roger Southall of the idea of a "South African power elite", traces the contours of an economy still "overwhelmingly representative of white wealth and controlled by white managers", wherein "five corporations [are] responsible for over a third of total [JSE] market capitalisation[,] the top ten … over half", and black people own between 7% and 18% of share capital on the national bourse.

Multimillionaire ANC national executive committee members Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa, Valli Moosa and Jeff Radebe (through the business interests of his wife), demonstrably did not struggle to be poor, but neither should anyone else. It is incumbent to ask what the presence of these ANC denizens in South Africa's boardrooms has contributed to the structural transformation of South Africa's economy. In short, what social dividend has their leadership delivered?. 

Southall concludes that the ANC is not (yet?) in thrall to private capital, but that "[power] remains grossly unevenly distributed [and] continues to favour the powerful [while South Africa] remains one of the most unequal in the world … Whether elites have the political will and economic guile to respond creatively to pressures from below by promoting socially and racially inclusive growth will determine the future course and fate of South African democracy".

In a world upside down, the victory of August 30 1987 rings too hollow, and the challenge to realise the democratic imperatives of equality of opportunity and human dignity, looms all too ominously.

Jonathan Faull is an independent political and public policy analyst resident in Washington, DC.