JOHANNESBURG – South Africa's powerful trade unions are in turmoil following violence that killed 44 people at a platinum mine strike that has wide-ranging political implications.
Labor leaders charge that rivalry between new and old unions is an orchestrated plot to destroy South Africa's labor movement. Others hint darkly at political manipulation. Some talk of collusion by mining companies.
What's clear is that the fall-out from new union rivalry and the government's violent reaction could affect the future of President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress.
Thirty-four strikers were shot dead by police in a three-minute barrage of automatic gunfire last week that also injured 78 others. The incident traumatized a nation that thought it had seen the last of state violence with the end of apartheid in 1994.
Ten other people were killed the week before, including two police officers hacked to death with machetes by strikers who also burned alive two mine security guards.
"The events may well prove to be a watershed in the decline of the African National Congress' national legitimacy and hold onto political power," said Nicolas van de Walle, professor of government at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and author of "African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis."
The brutal violence occurred at the strike at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana by the new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has won over tens of thousands of members in a matter of months in its bid to unseat the long-established and politically connected National Union of Mineworkers. The new union charges that the national union is no longer aggressively pressing for higher wages and better working conditions because its leadership is too entrenched with the government and is cozying up to the management of big mining firms.
The older unions, which played a vital role in the struggle against apartheid, are trying to reassert themselves. The secretary general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Zwelinzima Vavi, spoke Friday of the need to defeat "bogus breakaway 'unions' and their political and financial backers.'"
He charged Friday that the upstart union's wildcat strike demanding higher salaries at London-registered Lonmin PLC was part of "a co-ordinated political strategy" using intimidation and violence "to divide and weaken the trade union movement."
The new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union says its very attraction is that it is not linked to any political party.
And it says the National Union of Mineworkers' close affiliation with Zuma's ANC is bringing about its downfall.
Over the years, the NUM enjoyed almost a monopoly in the mines around Rustenberg including the Lonmin mine where the shootings occurred. But now it has become over-politicized, too close to the government and the ANC to properly represent the interests of the poorest miners, according to Joseph Mathunjwa, the new union's president.
The complaint is a microcosm of broader charges that the leadership of the ANC — the party that brought down a racist regime under anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela — has become bloated with corrupt fat cats who no longer care about its core constituents, the poorest of the poor.
Since the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa has become the richest country on the continent, but that wealth has benefited only whites who continue to control the economy and a small new black elite while the majority of its 48 million citizens continue to battle unemployment, housing shortages and poor service delivery.
It is no coincidence that three former leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers went on to become leaders of the ANC , including Vice President Kgalema Motlanthe, said Jan de Lange, a veteran mining writer for Sake24.com business news Web site.
"The NUM is probably the most disciplined and significant supporter of Jacob Zuma in his quest for a second (presidential) term and this may dent Zuma's chances," he said.
Van de Walle, the Cornell professor, sees far-reaching fall-out: "Even as (the ANC) has increasingly been undermined by the stench of corruption and power abuses, its inability to undo the sharp socio-economic inequalities of the apartheid era combined with a record of mediocre economic growth may finally be corroding the enormous capital of good will it gained by leading the struggle against white minority rule."
Media coverage of miners living in ghettos of corrugated iron shacks without running water or electricity provided a striking example of the failure of Zuma's government to deal with the country's major issues: increasing poverty, housing shortages and a yawning gap between rich and poor that makes South Africa one of the most unequal societies on Earth. The congress of trade unions complained this week that the poorest 10 percent of South Africans share R1.1 billion ($137.5 million) while the country's richest 10 percent has 381 billion (nearly $48 billion).
Poor education and health services are another issue. While even poor African countries are bringing down the numbers of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth, South Africa's maternal mortality rate has spiralled, according to government statistics, from 81 to 600 per 100,000 between 1997 and 2005.
Zuma's supporters argue that his government has made significant progress in improving the country's treatment of patients infected with AIDS and its HIV virus, running the world's largest program, although tens of thousands still go untreated.
Van de Walle said the "sheer symbolism" of policemen shooting at protesters would have suggested to many South Africans that "little has changed and that the state still serves a small rich minority rather than the impoverished majority."
That thought was put more crudely by Julius Malema, the firebrand politician expelled for "sowing disunity" in the ANC, who accused Zuma's government of complicity in the killings. He told striking miners that the government was unable to stand up to the mines because top leaders have shares in those mines that conflict with supporting workers' interests.
Malema has been the architect of a movement calling for the nationalization of the country's mines, an issue that remains on the ANC agenda, though Zuma and other leaders keep assuring mining companies and investors that it will never happen.
Fitch Ratings, one of the leaders in its field, said Friday the protests and talk of nationalization were symptomatic of issues that have discouraged investment in South Africa in recent years and helped form the basis of its decision to put South Africa's BBB+ rating on "negative outlook" earlier this year.
"High unemployment is already associated with widespread crime, which is regularly cited as one factor deterring foreign investment," it said. "Over time it could also threaten social and political stability, damaging the investment climate further."
South Africa produces 75 percent of the world's platinum and 60 percent of its ferrochrome. It's also one of the top 10 gold producers.
Some South Africans see the police shootings as the government using officers to put down challenges to its authority. Zuma, whose re-election bid is spearheaded by leaders of the challenged National Union of Mineworkers, can expect to confront many more such challenges, with every day bringing more of the sometimes violent service protests by poor South Africans discouraged by their lack of progress, while they see an ostentatious display of wealth exhibited by the black elite.
The shootings have this traumatized nation soul-searching, asking why violence has become an everyday matter in their society, which suffers some of the highest murder and rape rates in the world. Among recent horrors, three orphan children were stoned to death, with a 12-year-old girl among them raped. And a pastor is on trial, accused of molesting a dozen children in his wife's nursery school.
Many say such brutal acts are a legacy of apartheid. But the argument is wearing as thin as the ANC's promises to redress inequalities, nearly 20 years down the line.