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