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Marikana is a reminder of the apartheid years

South Africa is riddled with corruption and clientelism but it is not a dictatorship.

Returning to South Africa after a long absence was to feel that everything had changed but everything was still the same. The granite solidity of the Wits University building in Johannesburg – but this time with a female Senegalese professor introducing me to her students. “Did you arrange to come at the same time as Tony Blair?” I was asked. “Only if I could get his speaker fees,” I said. Or the smart general secretary of the Cosatu, South Africa’s TUC, confessing that unions had lost touch with their members – an honesty never heard in Europe.

As with their depictions of their president, South Africans like their politics full frontal. Two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa still does not know where it belongs in the world or how to end the misery that so many of its citizens endure. It now appears that most of the 34 mineworkers killed in a confrontation with police in the Eastern Cape on 16 August were shot in the back or as they lay
defenceless on the ground.

Like Sharpeville or Soweto, the Marikana massacre is a reminder that the old South Africa has not gone away. The shanty towns a few streets away from fabulously wealthy gated residential areas and luxury stores are a reminder of the old South Africa, even if the black bourgeoisie roar around in BMWs and share expensive restaurants with their former white oppressors. Building a more social-democratic South Africa is as far away as it is in India, Russia or China – countries the government likes to measure itself against.

Having got rid of the one-party rule of apartheid, South Africans now live in a state dominated by the African National Congress. The country is riddled with corruption and clientelism but it is not a dictatorship and still less a neo-authoritarian state such as Zimbabwe or Tanzania to the north. The press is aggressively free. The main weekend story when I visited was about the information minister and who paid for her $2,000 Christian Louboutin red-soled shoes. Lawyers and judges are independent and South African universities and publishing vibrant.

Birthday party

Yet the politics of South Africa happen within the ANC, not as a national contest between parties and visions for the nation. The party, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in January this year, took power in a revolutionary upheaval that was peaceful and cleverly managed by the country’s ruling economic elite. But it was a revolution, and, as with all such overthrows, those who won power will not relinquish it easily. Instead, the inner-party struggle is all that matters.

Nelson Mandela, like George Washington, gracefully gave up power to be the father of his nation. But his successor, Thabo Mbeki, was forced out of power as he lost control of the ANC. He tried to remove his deputy, Jacob Zuma, who came storming back after a brief interregnum by Kgalema Motlanthe, now the vice-president and a possible replacement for Zuma. Mbeki fell in part because of his bizarre stance on HIV-Aids. Zuma, in turn, may be forced out because of his bizarre statements concerning women and his failure to rein in rampant corruption among the ANC elite.

The ABZ – Anyone But Zuma – movement is vigorous; ANC regional branches openly debate a change of leadership and get full coverage in the press. Other candidates exist, among them Julius Malema, the 31-year-old former ANC youth leader. A demagogic populist, Malema is ready to stir any of the many grievances that poor black South Africans have into a denunciation of current power-holders.

Trade unions and the South African Communist Party – the last fully fledged communist party outside China and Cuba – also jostle for influence within the ANC. None has an answer to what the next stage of economic and social development should be. There are calls for nationalisation of the mines, but they make no money and keep hundreds of thousands in low-paid jobs which, in other countries, have been replaced by mechanical drilling and extraction.

South Africa likes to portray itself as a Bric nation. China and Russia are not interested in democracy, and in India there are more undernourished children living side by side with more billionaires than in all of Africa. For two decades, South Africa has been excused hard thinking as the world celebrated the Mandela liberation years. But soon the country will have to make hard choices and the ANC will have to decide if its second century will be marked by an advance towards or a retreat from democracy. Its challenge is to build a political system and government  that puts the public good before personal enrichment.

Denis MacShane MP worked in South Africa in the 1980s with independent black trade unions. He led the Labour Party delegation to the recent Socialist International congress in Cape Town.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special