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Published in The Drum 22 August, On Line Opinion 24 August, The Canberra Times 27 August 2012

The recent shooting of protesting miners by police at Marikana, north of Johannesburg, prompts me to reflect on South Africa in terms I wish I did not have to.

On Friday, August 17, in scenes reminiscent of the worst police action under Apartheid, 34 miners were killed and 78 wounded when police opened fire on striking workers at the British owned Lonmin platinum mine.

The shooting followed the murder of two security guards, a supervisor and two policemen by miners in the week leading into the police action.

Tension was clearly running high but no attempt to mediate the dispute was made. Police appear to have acted with a sense of vengeance, which is how they responded under Apartheid. The new police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, has no previous police experience; she is a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and was a political appointment.

South Africa likes to be known as the Rainbow Nation; a harmonious blend of all races and colours, a reference to having conquered its past. South Africa is a beautiful country with dreadful politics. Shackled with legalised race discrimination, known as Apartheid, for fifty years, the state enforced the separation of white and black with draconian ‘state security’ laws, including the Terrorism Act.

Apartheid was cruel and the state sanctioned violence, including the murder of reforming activists, Steve Biko and Chris Hani. Internal activism and international sanctions, particularly financial sanctions, brought Apartheid to its knees, saw the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and universal suffrage introduced, leading to democratic elections in 1994.

Members of the African National Congress (ANC) returned from exile. Seeing the writing on the wall major international organisations, such as Shell, mining giant de Beers and local business houses and banks provided financial support to the ANC to establish itself and contest the election. It helped that Nelson Mandela headed the ANC. Popular internal support for the ANC was overwhelming, assisted by what seemed like a bottomless campaign chest. Smaller parties which had carried the can while the bulk of the ANC was in exile or underground did not get a look in and they still don’t.

The ANC elite and other black activists carried with them into politics, the professions, the public service and business, strong notions of entitlement, which they sought by fair and foul means to fulfil. This notion of entitlement is fed by the policy of Affirmative Action, instituted to overcome the disadvantage inflicted on blacks by Apartheid, but now seen by some as a right and used by others in positions of power and influence to provide jobs to family and friends and extend largesse which carry obligations.

The former black activist elite have, by and large, been successful. They now live in the suburbs of the whites they once reviled; forgetting along the way, the bulk of the population they used to live with, now trapped, without leverage, in the ghettos. Taking their cue from the elite, minor officials and public office-holders use their limited advantage to squeeze extra for themselves in the provision of essential services or to waive or reduce minor to middling penalties.

The country is shackled with economically suffocating and politically destructive corruption. Besides breeding notions of entitlement, Apartheid encouraged and bred violence as a means of resolving conflict and of obtaining scarce goods and sustenance for those without work , which is increasingly hard to find in an economic system where wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The majority of jobs require skills which are expensive to obtain.

At the same moment in time that the mine workers at Marikana were being shot for striking, there was a violent protest at the three campuses at the University of Technology in Tshwane. Pretoria West, Ga-Rankuwa and Arcadia campuses were closed by an administration under pressure for its failure to assist students in financial need. The students also focused on the withdrawal or failure of basic services. Interestingly the student bodies involved were the ANC Youth League, which, until his dismissal from the ANC this year, was headed by the provocative and racist Julius Malema. The other student bodies involved were the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania, which has its origins in the Black Consciousness Movement and the South African Student Congress.

The miners, who remain on strike, despite the massacre, are seeking a fair salary for the specialised, difficult and dangerous work they undertake. They are nominally represented by the National Union of Mineworkers, which is affiliated to the ANC. It is accused of doing deals with management. The majority of the striking workers are members of the more representative and radical, Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union. The NUM has defended the actions of the police. Julius Malema, despite no longer being an office holder with the ANC, went to the mine and called for the resignation of President Jacob Zuma.

Stung by local and international criticism of the extent of corruption, the South African parliament late last year passed a new law, The Protection of State Information. It carries a penalty of 25 years in prison for any journalist or editor who blows the whistle on ANC corruption. Speaking in June 2012, Wendy Woods, the widow of the legendary anti-apartheid journalist and editor, Donald Woods said in relation to the new law, “I would say it’s more insidious than what my husband had to deal with. There were many laws in his time restricting journalists, but they knew what they were. This bill allows any government official to deem any information a state secret. It’s worse than the apartheid era because it’s so unspecific…”

In the past Zuma has been mentioned as a person accepting bribes over arms deals. A former Police Commissioner, Jacob Sello, was sent to prison for taking bribes from a drug baron and another police chief Bheki Cele has recently been named for leasing a police headquarters at a greatly inflated rate. Julius Malema has been named as influencing tenders in return for kickbacks when with the ANC.

South Africa does have an anti-corruption office. It is headed by a respected and fearless woman, Thuli Madonsela, a former teacher and lawyer. She is officially known as the Public Protector. The office has before it 14,000 documented cases of ‘maladministration’. She has come under pressure by Ministers to revisit her findings. She has said that the ‘Tunisian option’ of the popular overthrow of a corrupt government was not far off in South Africa, if corruption is not dealt with.

Zuma has expressed regret at the shootings and called for a period of official mourning for the victims, but that will not erase the fact that under his stewardship the country is hastening back to the past. Successive white Apartheid administrations were corrupt in every sense of the word. It seems that South Africa cannot shake off the legacy of its past.

With the failure to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, particularly black citizens, the ruling ANC elite can expect to be challenged by angry and increasingly radicalised blacks, probably youngsters, whose expectations are not being met, in fact are being squandered in a morass of venality. For them at least there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The move to the past might also include a return to black grass roots politics. Zuma and the ANC elite have little time in which to mend their ways and put the country back on the track which Nelson Mandela was walking, but from which Tabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma strayed. Without change, concerned professionals, particularly whites, will continue to leave.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who worked in South Africa from 1976/9.