x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

South Africa's malaise bursts into violence

The violence at a mine in Marikana is symptomatic of a wider malaise in South Africa

Thursday's clash at a mine in South Africa, in which 34 people were killed and scores injured, appears to be more than just an industrial-relations dispute gone wrong. But whether the tragedy is a cautionary symptom of a wider malaise afflicting post-apartheid South Africa is not clear; the inquiry that has been ordered should provide the needed context.

At the Lonmin Marikana platinum mine, near Johannesburg, police opened fire on workers in an incident that was captured on camera and beamed around the world.

The killing came during an illegal strike that had already led to the deaths of 10 people, including two police officers. Some of the strikers were armed with machetes and clubs when police opened fire.

South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, has tried to avoid inflammatory conclusions. "Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination," he said, as he appointed a commission of inquiry.

Although most of the policemen involved were black, the bloodshed has rekindled emotions from the brutal apartheid era. But while colour is not an overt issue here, unequal access to the expected benefits of democratic government certainly is - and Marikana is not the only place where this issue is being raised.

The end of apartheid has not benefited ordinary black South Africans in the way most had hoped. The African National Congress and its ally the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) now defend a new status quo in which a black elite prospers greatly while the majority still struggles. A vivid example of this is that Cyril Ramaphosa, who made a reputation as leader of Cosatu's National Union of Mines, now sits on the board of Lonmin (formerly Lonrho).

The strikers at Marikana belong to an upstart rival union that has demanded better pay and conditions, while the NUM is now widely seen as timid.

This bloody incident should serve as a wake-up call to South Africa's political rulers and technocrats and to foreign investors, too.

The transition away from apartheid was a success in that it was largely peaceful. But the failure of the new order to spread the wealth more widely appears to be creating a chorus of grievances among the disappointed majority, complaints that now threaten to swell into serious unrest.

The rainbow nation still has a long way to go to ensure a bright future for all its citizens.