South Africa: A Descent Into Corruption, Greed and Factionalism

President Jacob Zuma
South Africa’s unpopular president Jacob Zuma

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks in South Africa. It was supposed to be a holiday dominated by the Big Five on the safari circuit. But owing to the current news coming out of the country, a different Big Five dominated: Marikana, mines, mining unions, Malema and Mangaung.

For the first time, following a large number of work and holiday visits to the country since 1990, I came away profoundly depressed by the future. The Zuma government and the ruling ANC are at war with themselves, administration policy on key issues is weak and erratic, Zuma offers no meaningful leadership and government bodies (especially the police and the prosecution service) seem irredeemably corrupt, incompetent or politically-oriented. Often all three at the same time.

Under a democratic government committed to righting the wrongs of apartheid, distributing wealth and providing services to ALL South Africans, events like the Marikana strikes and killings should never happen. Even before the strikes, the living conditions of the miners were appalling and wages had not improved to match higher costs of living.

Yet, senior politicians who had fought their way to prominence as union leaders and opponents of apartheid, are seen to be reaping the benefits of investments in mining and of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). They have become increasingly distant from those whose support made them national leaders. Every newspaper I read told this story and it was reflected in a general atmosphere of gloom, brooding resentment and a certain amount of fear.

As Martin Plaut and Paul Holden recently wrote in an editorial, the business or tourist visitor to South Africa could easily think all was well by observing plush hotels, new offices and gleaming malls filled with the old White and new Black middle classes spending money. But scratch below the surface and that appearance is a thin, cosmetic layer hiding intense poverty, failures to supply basic services such as education to the poor majority (eg: no textbooks for schools across Limpopo) and the grinding deprivation faced daily by those outside the privileged middle and super-rich classes.

How long can this last? Many commentators in newspapers are asking whether Marikana is the turning point and whether politics and the solid support of the masses for Jacob Zuma’s government will continue. There is a feeling that change, perhaps with much violence, is imminent.

I felt a change, but a change from confidence in the mid-1990s, through a fading but still evident hope in the early 2000s, to a rather bitter disillusionment and slow-burning anger now. The ANC will still be in power this time next year, but what will the political and industrial relations landscape look like?

Undermining the unions and ANC

Mining has made South Africa and a limited number of South Africans very rich. It has been the bedrock of the country’s economy for over 120 years. It remains a generator of wealth, division, deprivation and violence, despite the end of White apartheid rule and 18 years of ANC government. Few mineworkers (as opposed to owners and BEE investors) have benefited from political changes. The union which represented them, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), is an integral part of the ruling alliance and as such no longer has the unadulterated duty of representing miners’ interests – it is now part of the governing group, has investments as a union and its leaders are wealthy men. According to one report, the NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni’s total salary package is more than R100,000 a month. This makes him one of the highest-paid union leaders in South Africa.

The NUM owns the Mineworkers’ Investment Company, which has a portfolio of R28 bn or more. Recent estimates are that the NUM collected R209 million in dues from its members last year. Officially, the union says that it does not risk any conflict of interest by investing in mining, but the newspapers have over recent years revealed a number of investments which show a conflict of interest between income for the NUM’s portfolio and the wages and living conditions of miners.

It is hardly surprising that a new mining union came into being in 1998 and gained recognition from a number of mining houses three years later. The Associated Mining and Construction Union (AMCU) is troublesome new kid on the block. It has a fifth of the NUM’s 300,000 membership, but since the Marikana strike and killings, combined with a feeling of growing disenchantment among miners with the wealth of NUM leaders, its growing distance from its grassroots and unwavering support for the government (the NUM is one element of Cosatu that seems firmly behind Zuma and at odds with Cosatu’s General-Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi), AMCU could over time challenge NUM domination and thereby weaken the union, Cosatu and the whole ANC-led alliance.

This will not happen overnight, but the process has certainly started. The AMCU says it is independent and non-communist (in contrast to Cosatu’s close ties to the ANC and the South African Communist Party). Last year, it succeeded in taking most of the NUM’s members at Lonmin’s Karee mine after a strike the NUM failed to win. The AMCU claims to have gained 5,000 members there, making it the majority union. AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa says that success at Karee enabled it to gain members at other Lonmin mines, like Marikana – though at Marikana Lonmin still tried to negotiate only with the NUM, leading to the wildcat action, the factional fighting between members of the different unions and ultimately to the deaths of34 miners at the hands of the police.

Julius Malema addresses striking mine workers
Julius Malema speaking to Marikana mine workers

As I write, there is a strike continuing at Gold Fields’ KDC gold mine. The company is setting up meetings with the NUM and also with what are described as disaffected NUM members. Former ANC Youth League head Julius Malema was the only politician to come out in support of the striking mine workers. On 3rd September, he told the striking miners that they should ‘lead themselves’ when the big unions neglect them. He told the strikers that the NUM took its members for granted (something with which it is hard to argue) and he heard from the miners at KDC that they want the NUM local leadership at the mine to resign.

The on-going disputes at the mines, the anger of miners with their union (and by extension the ANC), has given Malema a chance to highlight the moribund state of the NUM and the seemingly rudderless and uncaring attitude of the Zuma government. The disputes and the backwash from Marikana and the government’s terrible handling of the crisis has weaken Zuma, weaken the ANC alliance and perhaps lead to a process of fragmentation within the unions.

Paradoxically, this does not seem to be benefitting the South African left and critics of Zuma, such as Zwelinzima Vavi – General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Currently it seems to be favouring more conservative forces like Malema and could lead to greater pressure for mine nationalisation from the right not the left – Vavi, the SACP and the left wing of the ANC currently oppose early and precipitate nationalisation.

To Mangaung

Mangaung and the ANC National Conference – will it be Zuma’s last stand or can he snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?

The rape trial, Zapiro shower cartoons, penis picture and a series of other embarrassments have made Zuma appear a bumbling figure, easily mocked and derided. He is far from that. His use of the intelligence services, ability to dodge or put off (Berlusconi-style) criminal investigations and prosecutions and his clever use of leaks and smear campaigns to damage opponents mean he should not be underestimated. He has many critics, and they have much ammunition to fire at him, but he has his intelligence screen around him and his opponents are often fighting amongst themselves and firing at the wrong target. Zuma could lose at the ANC Mangaung conference in December if they unite. But unite behind who? There are too many jostling for power and position, competing to get the support from Cosatu, the support that Malema had from the ANC Youth League and perhaps support from Malema himself.

Kgalema Motlanthe seemed a favourite of the ANCYL at one stage but recent polls suggest he has little support among younger South Africans. Tokyo Sexwale is another hopeful who tried to keep on Malema’s side during the expulsion process but over the years has been the subject of repeated allegations about his financial affairs and political activities. Vavi is the fiercest critic of Zuma and of ANC corruption on the left of the alliance, but even Cosatu is split with many (including the NUM) against him. Perhaps Cyril Ramaphosa, the architect of the constitutional deal that led to the 1994 elections (but dropped out of frontline politics after being outmanoeuvred by Mbeki), could come back after his role heading the disciplinary committee that expelled Malema; but has he been damaged by his shareholdings in companies linked with Lonmin.

Every possible contender seems to have question marks relating to integrity, financial dealings or political machinations against them or has a crumbling or unsteady powerbase.

In such a situation, a battered, bruised but still battling and belligerent Zuma, with his intelligence agency cronies and continuing powers of appointment and patronage, could still win out. But whether he wins or there is a new man at the top of the ANC, whoever leads the party into 2013 will be heading an organization that is riven by factionalism, lacking clear policies, trusted leaders or, and this could be crucial, allies in the union movement with the solid backing of workers. Vavi and Cosatu got the voters out in the last election to keep the ANC majority and to back Zuma – they might not be willing or able to do so next time round. And, it is sad to say, but the violence and deaths at Marikana may just be the forerunner of an increasingly conflictual industrial, trades union and political environment. It may not be become all-out shooting war, but it may be no less bitter for all that. Factionalism in the ANC and union battles have led, already this year, to scores of deaths. This is likely to get worse as we approach Mangaung and then between Mangaung and the elections in 2014.


By; Keith Somerville