Behind the Marikana massacre

South Africa is not a country at peace with its people.

Deep underground, men crouch in low galleries, eight hours a day. Their arms held straight ahead, they drive the 25kg drills into the rockface. The heat is stifling, the din unbearable. The miners at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana earn less than £350 a month. Their patience finally snapped, resulting in the clash last Thursday that left 34 bodies in the veld.

The National Union of Mineworkers headquarters in central Johannesburg is a world away. The air-conditioned offices of the general secretary, Frans Baleni, with black leather furnishings and glass coffee table, speaks of power and influence. He is a man used to dealing with mining bosses – the Randlords of old. He is a staunch ally of President Jacob Zuma, now fighting for his political life ahead of December’s ANC party elections.

Baleni rose through the union ranks, but today he’s accused of turning his back on his grassroots. When I met him it was about another dispute – the Aurora mine. Bought by Khulubuse Zuma (the president’s grandson) and Zondwa Mandela (Nelson’s grandson) they had left its 5,500 workers without pay for 18 months. When pressed to act, Khulubuse Zuma provided a one million rand donation to the ANC for election expenses.

The NUM had led protests through the streets of Johannesburg, but why didn’t Baleni take the case of the Aurora miners directly with the president, whom he meets regularly? He looked down and remarked that it was inappropriate. “We have avoided speaking directly to the president,” he said. “Interactions with the president are very limited.”

This is extraordinary - the NUM is one of the best connected organisations in the country. Its past leadership include the deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, and the ANC’s Secretary General Gwede Mantashe. The union has fallen foul of a corporatist culture. Unions are members of the Tripartite Alliance, running the country with the ANC and the South African Communist Party. The Alliance was vital in the fight against apartheid, but today the movement is distanced from the people it seeks to represent.

Describing South Africa’s massive inequalities as "very sick indeed", the leader of the Cosatu unions, Zwelenzima Vavi told his conference in 2010:

“Our belief is that if we were to confiscate all the medical aids, that most of us here have; if our cabinet ministers and MPs were forced to take their children to the public hospitals and be subjected to the same conditions as the poor; if we were to burn their private clinics and hospitals and private schools; if the children of the bosses were to be loaded into unsafe open bakkies (trucks) to the dysfunctional township schools; if the high walls and electronic wired fences were to be removed; if all were forced to live on R322 a month (£25), as 48 per cent of the population has to do, and if their kids were to die without access to antiretrovirals, we would have long ago seen more decisive action on many of these fronts.”

The alienation of ordinary men and women has allowed breakaway unions, like Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), to poach members from established unions. The NUM has spoken darkly about management backing AMCU to split the shop-floor. This may have a grain of truth, but it does not address the wider issue. Protests against the failure of the government to provide the basic needs of communities are a daily occurrence. As Paul Holden and I have shown in our book Who Rules South Africa, service delivery protests have brought more than two million people onto the streets every year since 2008. That is roughly 5 per cent of the entire population. The protests frequently turn violent and there are frequent losses of life. South Africa is not a country at peace with its people. 

Martin Plaut is the Africa Editor of BBC World Service News. Who Rules South Africa? by Martin Plaut and Paul Holden is published by Biteback Publishing. To get your copy please visit www.bitebackpublishing.com or call 0207 091 1260

 

Miners sit together during a strike calling for increased wages at a platinum mine in Marikana. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain