On the morning of Thursday, August 16, 2012, as thousands of striking South African miners marched in circles atop a pile of red rocks, the police lined up their tanks in front of it. Roughly 30 feet high and 50 feet across, the rock pile was the closest thing to a mountain for miles, jutting out of the flat expanse of the mining area called Marikana, 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg. The miners, who had been on the hill for six days demanding a raise from their employer, the platinum giant Lonmin, were unbowed. Cloaked in tribal blankets, they sang protest songs and waved knives and knobkerries, wooden batons given to boys at their tribal initiations as a symbol of power.
The miners’ strike has an integral place in the history of South Africa. Ever since mining began here at the end of the nineteenth century, poor shaft workers have chafed against the mining-enriched white establishment. Mine strikes in the 1980s kicked South Africa’s black-liberation struggle into high gear, setting the stage for the fall of the white-run apartheid government. On the face of it, the strike at Marikana seemed like a continuation of this classic conflict between rich white and poor black: Lonmin is headquartered in London and has mostly white managers.
But something was different this time. The Marikana strikers’ ire was mainly directed at the country’s black political leadership—particularly the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a trade union that was famously active in the black-liberation struggle and that currently forms part of the African National Congress (ANC)–led ruling coalition. Coming off the hill to speak to reporters, the strikers asserted it was the black leaders of NUM (pronounced “noom”) and the ANC, not the whites, whose insults and cruelties had driven them to strike. “We are being exploited, both the government and the unions have failed to come to our rescue,” one spat. The miners had even repurposed an apartheid-era protest song, swapping out “boers”—the old nickname for white Afrikaners—for NUM.
As the local police—now mostly black—unrolled a length of barbed wire around one side of the rock pile (ostensibly to protect a group of journalists), the strikers only sang louder and shook their knives more enthusiastically. Their anger was palpable. In an opening near the bottom of the rock pile, they had left a suspected police informant’s body as a warning, his head split open and his corpse arranged in the position of a crucifix.
Before dusk, as the shadows from the nearby mine shaft towers lengthened, the police doused the crowd in tear gas. As the throng began to spill off the hill, the police opened fire into the crowd with semiautomatics, killing 34 miners. Medical examinations would later show that some of them had been shot in the back as they fled.
South Africa, and the world, was horrified. The Marikana massacre, as it has since been dubbed, was the most deadly incident of government-sponsored violence since the end of apartheid. Such episodes were supposed to disappear with the coming of freedom and racial equality. But instead they seem to be reemerging. Throughout the past year, violent strikes at other mines and in the country’s transport and farming sectors have inspired pitched clashes between protesters and police and left at least a half-dozen dead. Poor blacks seem to feel as frustrated with the democratically elected black government as they did with the apartheid-era white one—and the government seems inclined to crack down on them in the same brutal ways the old white government did. In a particularly amazing twist, shortly after the Marikana massacre, the government arrested 270 of the striking miners and charged them with causing the murder of their 34 fallen comrades—the exact same convoluted legal reasoning the apartheid regime used to entrap anti-apartheid activists. (They released the miners only after a groundswell of public outrage.)
The events have left many in South Africa deeply bewildered. In early September, at a fancy Cape Town book party attended by government officials, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, suddenly leapt from his seat and started screaming: “What the heck are you doing? I am eighty years old. Can’t you allow us elders to go to our graves with a smile, knowing that this is a good country?” He later added, “Is this the kind of freedom people were tortured and people were maimed for?”
Implicit in Tutu’s indignation is not just the question of what the government is doing in episodes like Marikana but why. How could a government made up of black leaders, many of them veterans of the anti-apartheid movement, perpetuate characteristic abuses of apartheid rule? Why, almost 20 years after the advent of democracy, are the black poor boiling over with frustration at the government that was supposed to have been their champion? The story behind Marikana offers answers—and some disturbing implications for South Africa’s future.
The stage for Marikana was set six months earlier, on February 28, at a nearby mine run by Impala Platinum, the second-largest platinum producer in the world. On a sandy soccer field, thousands of striking miners waited in the blistering heat for an influential supporter to arrive.
That the Impala miners had gone on strike wasn’t out of the ordinary. Every June through August is “strike season” in South Africa, approximately three months during which the government-aligned unions—including NUM—fight employers for higher wages. But the Impala strike took place outside of strike season and was organized by an upstart non-government-aligned union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which later organized the action at Lonmin. The 17,000 strikers demanded a pay raise of 100 percent, a brazen amount, and the level of their anger was much greater: They torched cars and fought with those still loyal to NUM; by the time they gathered on the soccer field, several among their number were dead. There was a sense that the protest had a greater, more dangerous significance than an ordinary strike.
In the early afternoon, a white Land Rover finally pulled up and disgorged the speaker: a cherub-faced 32-year-old named Julius Malema. Malema had risen up through the ANC’s Youth League. But, in 2010, he started criticizing top ANC leaders for failing the poor—particularly President Jacob Zuma, whom he asserted had failed to “lead us into economic freedom” and let his rich businessmen friends “colonize...this country.” In late 2011, the ANC suspended his party membership. But this move only burnished his credentials as a man of the people; he began to appear at labor protests, raising consciousness with his intense charisma. As sweat beaded on his forehead beneath his Che-style beret, Malema ascended a makeshift platform and grasped a handheld microphone. “You have all the reasons to be angry,” he thundered at the crowd, shaking his index finger so hard his whole upper body rocked.
The strikers roared with pleasure. Authorities with NUM had been telling the strikers to calm down and express their grievances through government-approved channels. “Workers are never wrong,” he continued. Whooping louder, many in the crowd raised placards made from cardboard boxes. “MALEMA, YOU ARE OUR LAST HOPE,” read one. “MALEMA, FORM YOUR OWN PARTY, EVERY TIME YOU TALK YOU TELL THE TRUTH," read another.
One of the men whose life was changed by Malema’s speech that day was a 38-year-old mine surveyor named Venter “Doctor” Mulutsi. Doctor grew up penniless in a farming village in the country’s dusty far northwest. His childhood dream was a big one: to become a pro soccer player in the mold of “Doc” Khumalo, a South African striker after whom he nicknamed himself. As is characteristic of black South Africans who came of age around the end of apartheid, Doctor always felt sure he would achieve his dream. The singular focus of the anti-apartheid struggle had made it seem as though, once apartheid fell, anything would become possible.
Of course, he encountered obstacles. He couldn’t get a tryout for Doc Khumalo’s team; he kept running out of money. The closest he got to the feeling of arrival he’d imagined for himself was when he landed a contract working for a Johannesburg garbage-collection company with white supervisors. On his fridge, where most people display family pictures, he has a set of photographs of himself, grinning, his arms slung chummily around his supervisors at a soccer game. “The management allowed me to be friends with them,” he said nostalgically.
But in 2008, his contract ended, and he returned to Impala Platinum, where he had previously done a stint of work. Unlike at the garbage company, he noticed that on the mines blacks and whites still lived in different worlds. Low-skilled black workers who got hurt underground got smaller settlements than injured white supervisors. He lived with his family in a one-room house, his salary stagnated, and, in late 2011, he discovered that sending his daughter, Mathidiso—the name, he told me wistfully, means “great things”—to a well-reputed school instead of the local, failing one would cost him more than half his monthly wage.
Doctor’s story is a typical one. A third of working South Africans of all ages get by on less than $2 a day. Half of South Africans under age 24 looking for work can’t find a job. The vast majority of blacks still languish at the bottom end of the economic spectrum; the average income for black households is a sixth of that for white ones. For people like Doctor, there remains little meaningful opportunity.
Malema’s speech encouraged Doctor to hold the black leadership accountable for his suffering. After listening to Malema, Doctor decided to jettison his membership with NUM, the government-allied union, and take up with AMCU, the breakaway, anti-government group. He returned to life at the mine with new hope that “maybe things will come right.”
It’s not surprising that South Africa’s latest protest movement has emerged from the mines. For better and for worse, mining has been the principal shaper of the country’s history. A series of fabulous mineral rushes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revealed some of the world’s richest troves of diamonds, gold, platinum, chrome, and manganese, and gave rapid birth to Johannesburg, a mining encampment that is now among the 50 biggest cities in the world. As mining created South Africa’s economic infrastructure, so it created the country’s warped social culture. In fact, the concept of apartheid itself was originally born on the mines. “South Africa’s troubles began . . . in the diamond fields long before anyone dreamed of the word ‘apartheid,’ ” says Francis Wilson, an economist and the author of the flagship study of South African miners’ lives, Labor on the South African Gold Mines.
Before its mineral wealth was discovered, South Africa was a sleepy farming colony clustered at the Cape of Good Hope, a refreshment station for European ships rounding Africa’s tip on their way to the more lucrative spice coasts of the East. All that changed in 1867, when a Dutch boy found an eye-catching stone on the inland ridge where his family had trekked to establish a farm. It turned out to be a 21-carat diamond. Within five years, tens of thousands of fortune-seekers from all over the world had converged in a diamond rush. One was Cecil John Rhodes, who founded De Beers using capital from the Rothschilds.
Many of the new diggers were Africans. The mines’ European managers found them mystifying and hard to control—they came and went from their villages on their own time frames—and also suspected them of selling diamonds outside of the managers’ established trading framework. So the managers came up with a system to control them. In this migrant-labor system, black workers had to live in all-male dormitories on the mines’ locked-down compounds. They could only work if they possessed a “pass,” a permit that strictly prescribed when they could come and go. And they worked for wages, not a direct share of the mines’ profits.
Gold was discovered nearby 15 years later, and the rush that followed fueled South Africa’s transformation into Africa’s most industrialized economy and established a class of super-wealthy financiers. It also entrenched the diamond mines’ migrant-labor system. Pass laws were instituted on the gold mines, and then on other mines and factories built later. The ingraining of this system suppressed black economic advancement and made for a particularly dehumanizing lifestyle: Black male workers shuttled between their villages and the dormitories, where they slept in cramped bunks surrounded by foreign men from a half-dozen other tribes. Violence broke out regularly in these testosterone-soaked quarters. The workers rarely saw their families, who couldn’t get the passes that would allow them to live by the mines.
By the middle of the twentieth century, a large portion of black men did a stint on the mines at some point in their lives. The migrant-labor life became the unofficial black norm. And then, starting in the 1950s, it became the official one. Impressed by the pass system’s ability to regulate black labor, the ascendant Afrikaner National Party implemented it as a nationwide policy.
The mines ultimately became the staging ground for one of the most effective phases of the black resistance to white rule: They represented, in its purest form, everything that seemed wrong with blacks’ treatment in South Africa. But it took a particularly charismatic young leader to channel the miners’ simmering anger into protest. His name was Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa was born in an overcrowded black slum on the northwest side of Johannesburg. His ticket out was religion—and rhetoric. Even in his early teens, he gained renown for his captivating preaching, which had a subtle political undertone. One of his biggest hits was a production he called “The Trial of Trials,” about the guilt incurred by those who killed Jesus, which created unease among authorities associated with the apartheid regime.
In 1982, anti-apartheid activists recruited Ramaphosa, by then a young lawyer, to help run the new National Union of Mineworkers. One of his duties was to petition the mines’ white management for organizing rights. A brilliant and charming negotiator, he became friends with the magnates to cultivate their trust, breakfasting regularly with gold titan Bobby Godsell and frequenting cocktail parties held by the Menells, a mining dynasty.
His other duty was to build trust with the workers. He drew on his “Trial of Trials” experience to give powerful speeches. Not unlike Julius Malema, he soon became a galvanizing force. Under Ramaphosa’s leadership, NUM’s membership doubled every year, exploding to 344,000 in 1986. It’s no exaggeration to say NUM helped deliver apartheid its deathblow. In the mid-’80s, multi-industry strikes led by miners brought the apartheid economy, already crippled by international sanctions, to its knees.
Ramaphosa became Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man in the transition of the early ’90s and was then elected secretary-general of the ANC. To ordinary blacks, Ramaphosa was an everyman hero. Vishnu Padayachee, an economist and anti-apartheid activist, described the joy of watching him speak at events in Johannesburg, dressed in simple button-downs, radiating a passion for justice: “Cyril was one of us, someone who had come through, understood.”
That’s why it’s all the more ironic that, 20 years later, Ramaphosa has emerged as one of the chief enemies of the miners he once led to freedom.
In the wake of Malema’s speech, Doctor became a prominent recruiter and media spokesman for AMCU, the new breakaway union. Last September, I joined him for one of his regular recruiting duties: In the dead of night, before his own work shift begins, he walks 45 minutes to a 24-hour clinic on mine grounds, where he wanders among the ill and bedraggled, and suggests AMCU as a solution to their problems.
It was 4 a.m. when we arrived, but dozens of patients had already started to fill up the clinic’s grid of red plastic chairs. Doctor trotted over to an elderly woman in work overalls leaning against a wall and slapped her on the back. “All of my friends are changing their membership,” she told him, beaming.
The woman, who did not want to give her name, was one of Doctor’s early recruitment successes. A worker in Impala’s lamp house, where she checks the headlamps of every miner who descends into a shaft, she had been a faithful NUM member for 29 years. But she defected to AMCU in the middle of last year, pained by the difference between her living condition and the lifestyle of the “people at the top.” “I live in a shack. I have no money,” she described telling a government representative who came to beg her to keep faith with NUM. “You guys are eating. Your children are going to better schools.”
She had a spitting antipathy for the black-liberation establishment—Ramaphosa in particular. “Ramaphosa has shares in the mine now,” she said. “How can he speak for us?”
This critique, which was shared by all the workers I interviewed that night, is a valid one. Income inequality has actually widened since the end of apartheid in 1994. Driving this trend are so-called “black diamonds”—wealthy blacks connected to the black-liberation establishment, whose fortunes have improved incredibly compared with the ordinary people they once represented. Ramaphosa serves as perhaps the most dramatic example. In 1996, after his rival Thabo Mbeki outmaneuvered him in the race to succeed Mandela as the country’s second black president, Ramaphosa decided to enter business. Over the following decade, he became one of South Africa’s richest men, building a $765 million net worth mainly through his Shanduka Group investment arm. “Shanduka means ‘change,’ ” declares his website, “a name befitting to a company founded on the principle of investing in change.” But in fact the Shanduka Group amassed its fortune through investments in august titans of South African business like financial institutions, telecoms, McDonald’s franchises—and mines. Shanduka is a 9 percent shareholder in Lonmin and Ramaphosa is a director of its board. In October, he was discovered to have sent e-mails to Lonmin’s management in the run-up to the Marikana massacre describing the company’s striking miners as “plainly dastardly criminal” and suggesting the police take action against them.
What happened? In truth, there was always an unresolved tension in the ANC’s fight against the world white South Africans had created, including the mines. Was the goal of the liberation struggle to radically dismantle this world—or just to move more freely within it? Over the course of 20 years of ANC rule, the tension has quietly resolved toward the latter aim. When President Thabo Mbeki moved to address blacks’ exclusion from the South African economy, he did so by instituting an affirmative action program called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) that focused on incorporating blacks into the highest positions at the biggest companies and encouraging huge investment deals with black businesspeople. But by providing an economic ladder to only the most educated and privileged blacks, and by investing in the same businesses—such as mining—that require cheap black labor, BEE only deepened social inequality, though it partially removed its association with skin color. (Ramaphosa has remained a BEE defender.)
For a black South African to become a mining magnate was, until recently, considered a manifestation of post-apartheid justice. Kuseni Dlamini, who recently served for a year as CEO of Anglo American South Africa, explained to me the allure of joining the top ranks of institutions from which blacks had so long been barred—even if your former self might have judged those institutions rotten to the core. Returning to South Africa from England in the early 2000s, Dlamini had two options: go back to his tribal area to teach college or accept a job at Anglo. The choice was obvious. The tribal area would have felt disappointingly “familiar,” he said, whereas “in South Africa, historically, Anglo American had always been a very, very big deal.” For him, personally, getting to run a mine seemed to be the ultimate ascent, a definitive “transcending of the dark period of the ’80s”—if not, of course, for most of the mine’s languishing black employees.
And thus a great disconnect has opened up between the black elite and the black poor, not only in their incomes but in their sense of self. Black leaders have substantially occupied former white identities. Ramaphosa has taken up a hobby particularly associated with white South Africans: game ranching. One Friday evening a few months before the Marikana shooting, he showed up at a big-game auction in a colonial-style safari shirt embroidered with the name of his ranch and threw down a near world-record $2 million bid for two buffalos.
The totality of the transformation can be breathtaking. A couple days after I visited Doctor Mulutsi, I flew to a much-hyped poverty and inequality conference co-hosted by the government in Cape Town. After several days of academic presentations, the participants were treated to a gala dinner featuring tables of fine meats, cheeses, and glitter-covered cupcakes; a six-foot-high placard boasted that the spread was sponsored in part by Ramaphosa’s Shanduka Group.
On the conference’s final afternoon, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe spoke. Motlanthe, like Ramaphosa, came of age organizing in the ’80s for NUM. After giving a short, uncontroversial talk to a crowd of professors and students, Motlanthe fielded a question from me about how he interpreted Marikana. He didn’t mention economic inequality in his answer. Instead, he ascribed the unrest on the mines to a sort of black-magic-inspired primitive conspiracy. The idea to leave NUM in favor of AMCU, he claimed, would only “germinate among a handful” of power-hungry renegades. In order to persuade the other miners to abandon faith in their accustomed leaders, these mutineers would “procure the services of a muti person”—a traditional medicine man, a witch doctor.
It was eerily reminiscent of the way South Africa’s apartheid-era leaders used to speak of their problematic “natives.” Those white leaders also denied widespread unhappiness with their rule and ascribed the behaviors of the black poor to their uncivilized traditions. But Motlanthe barreled on. The way to address the miners’ discontent, he concluded, was “to separate them from the muti person and to break that spell. Then you can deal with them.”
The man sitting next to me in the lecture hall sniggered openly. Voodoo—so that was what had caused Marikana?
There’s no evidence the ANC recognizes the dangers of continuing to rely on leaders who are distrusted by the poor. In December, the party elected Cyril Ramaphosa its new deputy chief, setting the stage for him to succeed Jacob Zuma as president in 2019. So it’s no wonder there’s an opening for a populist figure like Julius Malema. Last year, after giving the speech at Impala that inspired Doctor Mulutsi to become an organizer with the breakaway union, Malema visited a half-dozen other restive mines. In his appearances, he explicitly blamed black establishment leaders like Ramaphosa for perpetuating the misery of the black poor. “They have been stealing this gold from you,” he told strikers from the Gold Fields mine just west of Johannesburg. “Now it’s your turn. These people have been making billions from these mines.”
But is Malema really any more committed to a different future than his predecessors? In January, I sat down with Malema to discuss the matter. To speak with me about his advocacy for the poor, Malema had chosen the Marion on Nicol, a five-star boutique lodge. Malema explained that the hotel is “very private, very private”; later, by phone, he confided that he has enemies, higher-ups in politics who are “using state institutions to try to bring me down.” One of these institutions is the South African tax department, which last September slapped him with a 16 million South African rand ($1.8 million) outstanding tax bill. The reason, he alleged, is that his work among miners has frightened the government.
“The gap is widening and it’s worrisome,” Malema mused before ordering a rack of lamb. “The poor will have nothing to eat but the rich.” The establishment black leaders had chosen to cash out after the democratic transition, he said, rather than remain true to their revolutionary principles. The leadership “is conflicted with wanting to lead the ANC and wanting to be in business ... at the same time.”
The trouble with this critique is that Malema is deeply enmeshed in business, too. He has a mansion with a pool in a tony Johannesburg neighborhood and another in his hometown. When not riling up the workers in his Che beret, he wears Gucci, Hugo Boss, and a Breitling watch valued at $28,000. He has made headlines for attending a party where sushi was consumed off the bodies of scantily clad women. Where the money that funds this lifestyle comes from remains unclear. He has never held an ordinary job outside of politics. Allegations of corruption have long dogged him, and in September, around the same time as the tax bill arrived, a warrant was issued for his arrest on corruption charges relating to the awarding of government contracts in his native province.
Although Malema’s message resonates with the miners, his questionable sources of income have begun to give some of them pause. Back in Impala, during a visit to Doctor’s one-room house, I witnessed an interesting conversation about Malema. One of Doctor’s recruits, an elderly miner named Patrick, and his son-in-law Abey had wandered in to watch a program featuring Frans Baleni, a pug-faced NUM executive defending the government’s response to Marikana. The three men clustered around the dusty, crackling TV set, then tsk-tsk’ed in disgust and turned away.
“Malema will become president,” Abey suddenly proclaimed. He wore a Che-style beret just like Malema’s atop his drawn face. Thirty-one years old, he, like Doctor, had nurtured an ambitious childhood dream—to be a sound engineer—but he had never been able to find a steady job and now “my dream is gone.”
But didn’t the men fear Malema could be a sellout, too, given his affection for the luxe life? At the question, they fell silent.
“The only problem with Malema is he is a crook also,” Doctor finally said.
Abey’s scowl only deepened. “Malema will become president,” he repeated. “But will he also forget the people? We wonder: Who will we believe? Who can we trust now? The same people we are complaining to turn out to be the people we are complaining about.”
This reversal will always happen as long as the basic structure of South Africa’s economy remains intact. The South African mining economy and the broader apartheid economy that was built on it were designed to produce a rigid two-class system in which a mass of poor served a small, wealthy elite. The advent of black rule has somewhat diminished the correlation between class and race, but it has done virtually nothing to narrow the great divide between haves and have-nots. Success in South Africa is still associated with vast personal enrichment and a shift of sympathy away from the poor to the fellow wealthy. Thus the country is stuck in an eternal cycle in which the heroes of today, as they move up in society, become the oppressors of tomorrow.
Even Doctor worries that he has started this crossover. One of his new tasks as an AMCU leader is to negotiate with Impala’s white supervisors—just how Ramaphosa cut his teeth 30 years earlier. But the more time he spends with the supervisors, he told me, the more the miners become suspicious of him, saying, “Hey, he’s selling us out.” And the more contempt he feels for the miners and their ignorance of the intricacies of business negotiation. “They are not educated,” he complained.
Nelson Mandela pulled off a remarkable nonviolent political transition by focusing on emotional aspects of racial reconciliation. But he and his successors left the work of dismantling South Africa’s unequal economy undone. The miners are beginning to suspect the revolution that finally dismantles it won’t be a peaceful one. “I see blood,” Doctor told me, suggesting that law and order will fall apart when Mandela, now 94 and in poor health, dies.
I saw his fear of South Africa’s bloody future emerge at the Lonmin strike, a setting in which I had expected him to be comfortable. He had taken me there after the massacre to show me that the strikers still had fight in them. Indeed, the mood outside Lonmin was gamely defiant. Thousands of striking miners choked the roads leading to the mine for a midday march, singing and raising their knobkerries in unison.
Initially, it seemed to be Doctor’s element. He moved among the strikers doling out the special, three-stage handshake that indicates empathy on the South African street: palms together, thumbs together, palms together. But then the afternoon took a sinister turn. After wending their way around Marikana’s network of roads, the strikers ended in a wide field. An AMCU organizer, somebody Doctor didn’t know, grasped the microphone and began to orate in Fanalago, a creole dialect of different tribal languages used on the mines. His tone was jocular, and from time to time the miners seated in the field broke into laughter. I asked the woman next to me what he was saying. “He’s describing the punishment the miners will give to those who don’t join the strike,” she said. She began to translate. The message of the speech was astonishingly threatening and dark. “Landlords,” he admonished, “warn the traitors” who may be your tenants, “because it’s your house that’s going to burn down.”
I looked back at Doctor, who stood a couple of yards away. He was transfixed but also frightened, as if he saw how easily he might become the kind of traitor the speaker at the strike vowed to burn. Suddenly, he jerked his head toward where I had parked my car. “Fuck, I can’t take this anymore,” he muttered. “Let’s go.”
Eve Fairbanks, a writer living in Johannesburg, is working on a book about South Africa.