South Africa

In the wake of Marikana, ANC pushing a self-destruct button

By Greg Nicolson 17 September 2012

As police raided the hostels of Lonmin miners it looked like the ANC had once again chosen force over discussion. It’s nothing new, but this specific raid will be what we remember as the beginning of the party’s decline. By GREG NICOLSON. 

This weekend’s crackdown on the settlement of Nkaneng should come as no surprise. In the last few years, as service delivery protests have engulfed townships and informal settlements across the country, the ANC government has stood behind the state-sponsored violence and intervened only when absolutely necessary.

The tale feels like a cliché. Something triggers a store of long-held grievances and the community fortifies its thoroughfares with burning tyres. After the police arrive they eventually decide the protest cannot continue and attack the toyi-toying group. In their nyalas, the cops first teargas the community in a drive-by and then conduct a series of arbitrary arrests that follow a hail of rubber bullets.

The smell of teargas, stab of rubber bullets and the humiliation of violent raids further enrages the angry mob. The stakes are raised and the more violent and disaffected members of the community remain, seeking ever more destruction.

Between police and protestors lies a dark silence. The cops don’t care why people are on the streets, burning the little they have access to while government officials are too scared or don’t care enough to mediate promptly. When they finally arrive and offer the slightest semblance that they give a damn about the community’s concerns, the protest often subsides.

It seems obvious that a leader should immediately attempt to listen. But in the silence of a community on fire, before government officials are forced to react, lies a deafening reality of the disconnect between our most marginalised and their elected leaders, usually from the ANC.

These protests, similar in root cause to the ongoing Lonmin strike, regularly occur because of poverty, corruption and unmet expectations. People are tired of living without adequate shelter. They know it’s unfair they can’t access decent health services. They want electricity and water plumbed into their homes and they want an effective and transparent billing system. They are tired of the forced humiliation that latches onto poverty. Worst of all, they’re disheartened seeing their children grow up to live in exactly the same desperate conditions.

Law and order needs to prevail in Marikana and no more deaths can be added to the toll. But this weekend’s move by the police and army into Nkaneng is all too reminiscent of the response to service delivery protests over the years. All too often the ANC has let police shoot first before even asking why protests are occurring, let alone engaging in meaningful discussion (however long, risky or arduous it need be).

It’s symbolic of a larger problem. The ANC aims to “end Apartheid in all its forms” and “fight for social justice and eliminate the vast inequalities created by Apartheid”, but too many examples show that it’s no longer the party of the people. A litany of betrayals and failures stain the party’s successes (which primarily include a massive service delivery rollout and making a dent into transforming the system of racial exclusion) while its internal power plays and the venality of members erode the foundations established by some of the most inspiring leaders of the 20th century. 

The ANC’s June policy conference proved the party knows what’s hurting South Africans – poverty, inequality, unemployment and the ills flowing from the combination. We’re sure its members also care deeply – who wouldn’t when the stories of many South Africans are tragedies?

But the party is too distant from those we expect it to represent. President Jacob Zuma’s insulting and incredulous comments about visiting a township and realising there are poor people struggling to survive is testament to the disconnect. ANC MP Rose Sonto confirmed this last week when he disagreed with opposition parties in the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mineral Resources, saying, “We can’t go and talk to a crowd with suicidal tendencies.”

Dangerous, yes, but strikes and protests are messages sent when other avenues of communication fail. Instead of provoking miners with further police antagonism, the ANC needed to work with union leaders and mine management to increase engagement until leaders trusted them. Zuma has sent an inter-ministerial force, made a visit and established a judicial inquiry, but it’s not enough. ANC leaders aren’t giving Marikana the attention it deserves. Simply, they have failed to lead when the country was wailing, desperate and distraught, for leaders.

The problem the party faces, however, is that even if it had the resolve to provide leadership it’s so removed from disaffected communities it would have struggled to get a platform. The miners have been too hostile, and like many others across the country seem to believe the party has broken too many promises, its members too corrupt to trust.

Instead of proving them wrong, the party has distanced itself from the workers and failed to show it understands their concerns (at the same time it has lambasted the capitalist miners it has been so happy to accommodate all these years).

So in an attempt to control the situation the ANC offered the same response it has to service delivery protests: it sent in the police. That response is nothing new, but while the party hides, the Marikana massacre will go down in history as the moment everybody knew the ANC was no longer a party of the poor, no longer a party of the working class and no longer a party that could claim to represent the majority of South Africans.

The National Executive Committee has discussed Marikana at length, said Secretary General Gwede Mantashe. It’s looking at ways to address the causes of the disaster and may come up with creative solutions involving partnering with mining companies to improve the living conditions of workers.

One can only hope the party can, but one has to fear it has once again stoked unrest and it might be too late. The ANC may still be in power. It may still have the votes, but things change. They always do. And it’s moments like these the historians will remember. DM

Photo: A woman gestures at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in South Africa’s North West Province September 15, 2012. South African police on Saturday fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse miners rallying in Marikana after raids on their hostels to seize arms, witnesses said. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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