I’m in South Africa right now and am very worried about the violence at the platinum mines northwest of Johannesburg. You might have read about it in the papers. It looks like the police were attacked by armed, striking miners and then in self-defense fired into the crowd killing thirty people. The miners are striking for higher pay but also there is friction between two unions. There is a new union stealing members from the older union by promising to triple their salary. To make matters worse, the older union is accused of being in collusion with the mining company and deliberately negotiating for lower wages. But perhaps fueling the flames the worst is the growing sense in the country that people are sick and tired of the broken promises and the rich fat cats flaunting their corruptly obtained wealth while the average person continues to live in poverty.
While I was here, I took the opportunity to visit an American multi-national company in Johannesburg and found out a little tidbit that relates indirectly to the violence at the mines. Back in the late ‘90s, when Thabo Mbeki was the president of South Africa, the government pushed through a law under the banner of Black Economic Empowerment that required every white company to give 20% of its wealth to black shareholders. Originally, when the powers that be came to this American company, worth about $100 billion at the time, they expected it to turn over $20 billion to people in the South African government. Notice I said ‘turn over to people’ not ‘turn over to the government’. Obviously, this company refused but then negotiated instead to put $millions into a job training program for disadvantaged black people.
But, for the privilege of continuing to operate in South Africa, many companies did simply hand over stock to ‘people’ in the South African government, and those people and their friends became instant millionaires and in some cases billionaires. They didn’t use the money for job training or low-cost housing. They used the money for huge homes and BMWs for themselves and lavish shopping sprees for their wives in Zurich and London. In the meantime, the average South African black person continued on with 40% unemployment, very high crime, poor housing, and other social inequalities. Oh, and promises, lots of promises from the ANC, the black political party that spearheaded the struggle against the apartheid government.
And so now the ANC-led government is shooting strikers, reminiscent of the days when the apartheid government shot down demonstrators during the decades before it turned over power to Nelson Mandela. Will this miners’ strike be the spark that sets the country afire? I sincerely hope not; South Africa is a jewel of a country. But this much inequality is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Umhlanga, South Africa