Passing the Blame

What is missing from the common national dialogue is an acceptance of a shared identity and interest

Police clash with wildcat protesters. Photo by via Flickr.

Police clash with wildcat protesters. Photo by via Flickr.

16 August 2012 is a date that will be etched in the collective memory of all South Africans. On this day, 34 miners were killed in violent clashes with the police during a wildcat strike at the Marikana platinum mine in the country’s North West province. Horrific scenes of rows of police firing on strikers thrust the country back into the global news spotlight.

Ongoing enquiries and legal proceedings are slowly shedding light on the exact sequence of events, but the full story will not be known for some time, if ever. However, regardless of the exact background, the extensive use of violent force by the police caused almost universal outrage. 18 years after the country’s first democratic elections, the violence at Marikana seemed disturbingly similar to the infamous Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Then South African police killed 69 people who were protesting racially discriminatory laws. That the events at Marikana recall the violence from the darkest days of apartheid – the political system which enforced white minority rule based on racial segregation and the oppression of rights of non-white inhabitants – is deeply disturbing.

Regular union-based strike action has always been a feature of democratic South Africa. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is part of an alliance with the powerful Congress of Trade Unions of South Africa (COSATU). Many high ranking figures in government and business are ex-union leaders. The government generally sees strike action as an important part of the democratic system. However, the persistently high level of demonstrations both leading up to Marikana and after it, as well as the increasing number of “wildcat” strikes formed outside of union control – often against explicit orders from unions – has led to great concern over the country’s future.

Public Perceptions

It is widely believed that the Marikana killings are symptomatic of much wider problems and signify a turning point in South African history. What is not yet clear is what direction this change will take. The government is increasingly under pressure as economic growth has stagnated, inequality has increased and the unemployment rate remains high (officially about 25%, but some claim as high as 40%). There is a widely held perception that corruption is spiralling out of control. Protests over poor service delivery are widespread. Perhaps most worryingly, the country’s education system was rated 132nd out of 144 countries by the World Economic Forum.

The continued calls from, in particular, the highly divisive former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema for nationalisation of mining and redistribution of white-owned land adds another important dimension to the events of Marikana. While mining activity is only about 6% of GDP, it represents 60% of the country’s exports. Talk of nationalisation has seemingly left many international investors running scared and the rand has weakened significantly.

The international press has been filled with articles lamenting the country’s apparent downfall. The Economist recently published a scathing indictment of the government and suggested that while much of the rest of Africa is finally moving forward, South Africa appears to be heading the other way. For these and many other reasons it is easy to become decidedly glum about the country’s future. However this represents a vastly oversimplified view of an incredibly complex nation.

An African Comparison

Indeed, some sceptics believe that South Africa is increasingly following the stereotypical African model of bad governance and corruption that will lead to long term economic decline. However, several reasons for optimism remain. The country’s almost miraculous peaceful transition from an oppressive regime to a relatively inclusive democracy is still used globally as a model for reconciliation efforts. The percentage of South Africans living in poverty has reduced significantly. The government has also finally taken decisive action to deal with the AIDS pandemic and is starting to see real progress.

Its relatively strong political institutions, free press and independent judiciary are also sometimes taken for granted. Such strong institutions are not easily developed nor easily destroyed.  Growth in other parts of Africa has come from a much lower base both in terms of GDP and infrastructure. This makes comparisons to the rest of Africa potentially misleading and even unhelpful.

Complexity and Uniqueness

It is easy to underestimate the unique complexities facing the country. Equality in the eyes of the law and at the ballot box does not guarantee equality of opportunity. Apartheid entrenched economic, physical and psychological barriers between different racial groups that will take many generations to tear down.

Many are critical of the country’s Affirmative Action, or “Black Economic Empowerment” (BEE), policies and regard them as benefiting only a small proportion of the black community. Some also argue that BEE results in reduced competitiveness and causes distortions in the market. But there appears to be a lack of public discussion as to how to fundamentally address divisions and inequality in a country where the average white family still earns six times more than the average black family.

South African politics often seems to be a gridlock of racial blame games; offering the ANC an easy scapegoat for poor performance and causing many white people to become so defensive over their own position that they fail to recognise the long term unsustainability of the immense inequality in the country.

What appears to be missing from the common national dialogue is an acceptance of a shared identity and interest. This will require action from government, the opposition and citizens.

What Next?

It is perhaps wishful thinking to expect the government to lead the way in truly engaging citizens in shaping a shared future, since maintaining the cloud of racial hatred is often beneficial to the ANC in retaining votes. Additionally, many of the important decisions about party, and hence government, policy are made behind closed doors and involve limited public dialogue. South Africa is effectively a one party democracy, which doesn’t function optimally when the party does not determine policy in a transparent way.

Support for the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, has steadily grown in recent years, but still amounts to less than a quarter of the vote. While the DA has gained some support from the black middle class, it has failed to persuade the poorer segments of society.  Many voters are immensely loyal to the ANC from its history as a liberation movement and often see the DA as too white and too middle class. The party does have plans to change the racial composition of its leadership, but that will be widely interpreted as window-dressing if it is not accompanied by persuasive ideas for reducing inequality. Calling for improved labour legislation and better governance is not enough to capture the minds of the people. The party will remain primarily a watchdog for the ANC until it offers innovative ideas and broadcasts them convincingly.

South Africa needs a new dialogue and narrative that allows for criticism, but focuses on constructiveness. The silent majority of South Africans who are tired of incessant blame, negativity and old ideas need to make their voices heard and stand together. If Marikana can in some way provide a stimulant for this, lives will not have been completely wasted.

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