South Africa’s ongoing battle against inequality

Published: 27 Aug 2012
Source: Lucy Hovil

On 16 August, police opened fire on a group of striking miners at South Africa’s Lonmin-Marikana mine leaving 37 dead and 78 injured. This took place in the new South Africa – not the old one where police repression was the norm. So how could it have happened?

The answer to that question leads to so much finger-pointing it makes your hand hurt.

Top of the list, of course, is apartheid. Those who thought that a couple of decades of democratic elections and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was going to put to bed years and years of injustice are unfortunately deluded. South Africa might have achieved political representation, but chronic economic inequalities in the country have never been touched on, and until they are, we can expect a lot more incidents like this. Malema and others who want to stir up trouble will continue to have plenty of raw material to work with for as long as the majority of South Africans continue to observe the dazzling wealth of a few from within the humiliation of poverty.

Next on the list is the ANC government. South Africans have witnessed the accumulation of wealth and the seeming indifference of those in power and are left with an uneasy feeling that 1994 simply marked the transference of power from one elite to another. Patience is wearing thin and, much like the spectre of neo-colonialism that has dogged many parts of Africa, could it be that the contours of a neo-apartheid system are beginning to take shape?

Third on the list are the international companies that get rich off cheap labour and seem to turn a blind eye to the chronic health problems that affect those who work in the mines. Yes, the pay-rise being demanded was dramatic, but surely that is the whole point: for far too long, companies have exploited a labour force that has no alternative but to accept dangerous and often life-threatening work for little pay. In the broader context of national and international wealth, the shocking thing is that they were being paid so little in the first place.

We could point fingers elsewhere – at the trade unions and how they have handled themselves; or at those behind the scenes in whose best interest it was to stir up trouble. But the point is that the problems lying behind what happened are highly complex and are deeply embedded in structures of injustice that have been laid down over decades. The solution is not going to be easy. At the very least, it lies in excavating those structures one by one – a process that is going to demand extraordinary levels of braveness and courage on everyone’s part.

Regions: Southern Africa, South Africa
Type: IRRI Blog