/ 12 June 2014

Editorial: Mantashe trades straw men for scarecrows

Headache: ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe had to change his tune after NEC members rebuked him.
Headache: ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe had to change his tune after NEC members rebuked him.

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general – and former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – appears set on creating scarecrows, at a time when South Africa is in the middle of its longest strike ever, a strike that has had serious socioeconomic consequences.

Mantashe blamed the five-month strike in the platinum belt on “foreign forces” trying to “destabilise” South Africa’s economy. He didn’t name those “foreign forces”, but from other remarks he’s made, now and in the past, he seems to be referring to at least one person – a leader of the Workers and Socialist Party, Liv Shange, who happens to be Swedish, though she is married to a South African and has lived here for a decade.

On Thursday, Mantashe repeated his comments, expanding on them to say that there were in fact four “outsiders” who had been picked out as the troublemakers: “We saw foreign citizens from countries we know, we have identified four people from different countries who are actually right in the negotiations of Amcu [Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union] and basically articulate the position of Amcu in public. That is a worrying factor.”

Unless Mantashe is prepared to share his intelligence with the country to substantiate on what is – on the face of it – tosh, does he expect us to believe that four people, including or not including one white woman, are solely responsible for the longest, bitterest strike in South Africa’s history?

He went on to say that shop stewards should lead strikes because they would also be losing pay, unlike leader figures with other sources of income. And he elaborated on his conspiracy theory: “If you allow a free-for-all, the risk of economic sabotage becomes real because you will have people of all political persuasions coming to the country and begin to see agitation in a country. As a political activist, I don’t rule out the question of international interest wanting to see the Arab Spring in South Africa, for example.”

Which countries, one wonders, are funding and driving these infiltrators? That is not clear from Mantashe’s accusations.

Further, his statement is xenophobic, in a country with a history of violence against immigrants, and racist. It’s a scapegoating manoeuvre, not dissimilar to the way certain officials were left to take the blame in “Guptagate”, and not unlike what seems well under way in the Nkandla debacle.

Such quick recourse to a bogeyman figure is reminiscent, too, of how the apartheid government used to blame any unhappiness among the voteless black majority on “agitators”. It denies that there’s really anything wrong.

In the context of the platinum-belt strike, Mantashe’s comment implies that the strikers are incapable of thinking for themselves – or even of feeling the desperation of their own lives. That, it seems, needs to be pointed out to them by a woman from Sweden.

His words hardly sound like they come from a party historically committed to prioritising the needs of the formerly oppressed working class, let alone a former leading member of the union movement. They sound like the ANC is very much on the side of the mining capitalists, not the 700?000 striking workers who were, not so long ago, part of the very union (the NUM) Mantashe used to lead. Aren’t they part of the “masses” with whom the ANC so identifies itself?

Politicians such as Mantashe don’t seem to see that they need to be trusted by the populace, as leaders, and one does not gain trust by talking nonsense. We can’t trust his evaluation of the strike any more than we could trust the claim by ministers in Thabo Mbeki’s government that service delivery protests in 2006 and xenophobic violence in 2008 were the work of a “third force”. Or, for that matter, the claim by Siyabonga Cwele, then the minister of state security, that South Africa needed a draconian “secrecy Bill” to protect us against foreign spies.

The country needs leadership, not finger-pointing and scarecrows. Mantashe’s comments won’t calm the turbulent mining industry. From his position in the ruling party, and given the rivalry between the NUM and Amcu, his comments kill the government’s ability to mediate honestly and impartially. This is why, for two years, the government has failed to stabilise volatile platinum areas. The current and former ministers of mineral resources have failed to break the deadlock – and this could have a ripple effect, setting a precedent for other sectors in the upcoming wage negotiation period.

The world is watching. Investors are rattled when a ruling party leader, instead of providing leadership, spews conspiracy theory. Such comment feeds into perceptions among investors that South Africa is politically risky and its labour environment cannot be trusted. For a country with a weakening economy that is struggling to create jobs, failure to stabilise the mining sector spells a pessimistic outlook.

Thankfully, there seems to be some sort of settlement, accepted by the union bosses in principle on Thursday. We hope this settlement holds, for the sake of the country and despite Mantashe’s rabble-rousing comments.