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In South Africa, the poor feel betrayed by ruling ANC party

Poor, marginalized South Africans are increasingly protesting policy failings and corruption in the ANC, only to be met with police repression.

September 18, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • South Africans gather in Marikana to salute Mpuzeni Ngxande, one of the 34 striking miners slain by police in August.
South Africans gather in Marikana to salute Mpuzeni Ngxande, one of the… (Rodger Bosch, AFP/Getty…)

ETWATWA, South Africa — The news that police killed 34 strikers at a platinum mine last month brought back painful memories for residents of this shantytown near Johannesburg — not of the apartheid era, but of more recent confrontations here with police.

Residents angered by the inability of the government to improve their lives were summoned to the office of the local councilor, a stalwart of the African National Congress, they recalled. The official promised to put their names on a list for new housing. But a scuffle broke out, and police were called.

"One policeman started to shoot. I was walking away and he shot me in the back," said Eunice Mabona, 50, who suffered two gunshot wounds in the incident two years ago. Another woman was killed. "When I saw that these miners were shot, it brought back memories of what happened to me."

The killings of the miners shocked middle-class South Africans. But for poor blacks, the shootings illustrated the reasons for their growing anger at the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela that came to power 18 years ago in a wave of black empowerment.

After suffering under apartheid's institutional racism, poor, marginalized blacks now have a litany of complaints about the ANC, including authorities' use of live ammunition to suppress antigovernment protests.

"People say under the previous government of white people, apartheid was affecting people, but at least we had jobs and water and things," Mabona said. "But with this government, we only get freedom. We don't get anything else."

The ANC's 1994 election manifesto was sweeping: Millions of jobs would be created by building houses, roads, schools, clinics and toilets and providing water and electricity.

The party's most notable achievement has been extending social welfare grants, assisting several times the number of people since the end of apartheid. President Jacob Zuma told a union conference Monday that the ANC government had reduced dire poverty significantly. The government also built houses and infrastructure for many South Africans, but critics say that provincial and municipal ANC officials have often used building contracts to enrich themselves.

The populist Zuma, chosen to be ANC leader in 2007 and elected president in 2009, was thought to be a better choice than his buttoned-down predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, to represent the poor. But Zuma has been enmeshed in scandal since the beginning and now faces a challenge from the expelled leader of the ANC's youth wing, Julius Malema, who is a master at articulating the anger of the poor.

Poor blacks put themselves in danger, according to one university researcher, when they try to organize themselves outside the ANC and its affiliates.

The wildcat mine strikes that led to the fatal confrontation are the latest reverberation in South Africa's revolt of the poor against the ANC.

These days, furious demonstrations and roadblocks by angry shack dwellers are so commonplace that they are reported as routine traffic news. The conspicuous wealth of ANC stalwarts and their families has helped turn South Africa into what researchers describe as one of the world's most unequal societies.

"This rebellion is massive. I have not yet found any other country where there is a similar level of ongoing urban unrest," Peter Alexander, who holds the South Africa Research Chair in Social Change at the University of Johannesburg, wrote in a paper this year.

"It also has the highest levels of inequality and unemployment of any major country, and it is not unreasonable to assume that the rebellion is, to a large degree, a consequence of these phenomena," Alexander said.

The police shootings at platinum producer Lonmin's Marikana mine were a watershed.

The violence came after miners refused to stop their illegal strike and chased away officials of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, closely allied with the ANC, because of perceptions that the union and ruling party had not done enough for workers.

"They betrayed us," said striking Lonmin rock drill operator Mandla Tonjeni, referring to the ANC government, "because it's them that sent the police. It's painful what happened because the police were killing us."

Tonjeni, 45, who has seven children, is nowhere near the poorest of South Africans. Yet he's frustrated that his dangerous work makes other people rich.

"I surrender up my life when I go underground," he said. "Maybe I'll come out, maybe I won't. I'm just doing it so my kids can live."

Unemployed slum dwellers usually begin by expressing their frustrations calmly. Committees are formed, meetings called, letters signed, petitions sent, requests for protest marches obtained. But critics say that ruling party members often fail to turn up for meetings, shuffle complaints from one department to another and routinely deny permission for marches. Eventually, frustrations boil over.

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