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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle