South Africa's Resource Curses and Growing Social Resistance

By Bond, Patrick | Monthly Review, April 2014 | Go to article overview

South Africa's Resource Curses and Growing Social Resistance


Bond, Patrick, Monthly Review


The African National Congress (ANC), led during the 1990s by the late Nelson Mandela, is projected to be reelected in South Africa's May 7, 2014 national election by a wide margin, probably with between 50 and 60 percent of the vote. But underneath the ruling party's apparent popularity, the society is seething with fury, partly at the mismanagement of vast mineral wealth. The political and economic rulers' increasingly venal policies and practices are so bad that not only did ANC elites play a direct role in massacring striking mineworkers in August 2012, but corporate South Africa was soon rated by PriceWaterhouseCoopers as "world leader in money-laundering, bribery and corruption, procurement fraud, asset misappropriation and cybercrime," with internal management responsible for more than three quarters of what was termed "mind-boggling" levels of theft.* 1

With such degeneration from above, the country's impotent socialist left was pleasantly surprised last December when the largest union in Africa, the 342,000-strong National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa ("Numsa") split away from the ANC. Numsa pledged to organize mineworkers and any other disgruntled workers, and steadily to reconstruct a new South African left from below, including radical social movements once derided as "ultraleft" (because from the early 2000s they had already broken with the ANC). The "Numsa Moment"- which I think can be contrasted to some local trade unionists' "Lula Moment" advocacy, akin to Brazilian labor corporatism-is of enormous importance, especially if it leads to a "united front approach" and the "movement towards socialism" as promised in Numsa's "Breaking New Ground" congress of 1,300 shop stewards, just a week after Mandela's death.2 However, up against such a strong and prestigious national liberation movement, whose most famous leader stayed in the ANC until the end of his life, Numsa and its new allies are not yet contesting power in the next election. They must work hard on local alliance-building and the underlying socioeconomic conditions must continue to deteriorate, if Numsa is to rekindle the confidence of older revolutionaries and create a new generation of activists.

But that is exactly what is happening, twenty years after the country's first democratic election on April 27, 1994. As 2014 began, state murder of activists occurred periodically, nine at the time of writing in late February. One incident of police brutality in a northern citrus zone drew a crowd of 2,000 angry residents to demonstrate at a police station in early February. They torched the building, leaving three officers in critical condition-while a hail of live police ammunition left two protesters dead. East of the capital Pretoria, a similar protest included a copycat burn of a police station in the wake of electricity disconnections. In East London, a port city of 750,000, municipal workers stormed city hall in early February, petrol bombing a council chamber. Similar eruptions were felt in townships across the country but in 2014, the intensity seemed to increase. Expectations were that 2014 would beat the prior year's record: a daily average of five "violent protests" recorded by police, usually met with extreme force.

Mining Wealth and Worker Poverty

The country's most tense place was probably the large rural mining district just west of Pretoria, where everything seemed to fall apart at once: Madibeng, home to half a million people. Its name in the local Setswana language, "place of water," was chosen as a result of four major dams built during the apartheid era to service local white farmers and mining houses. One of the thirstiest-and angriest-sites within Madibeng is the township of Hebron, where community protests exploded in January because household water was disconnected for weeks at a time, although it is only 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) northwest from President Jacob Zuma's main Union Buildings office. About 10 kilometers further west is Mothutlung, site of intense demonstrations where police responded by shooting four people dead. …

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