The shooting of 34 protesting mine workers by South African police has shocked a nation whose leadership sprung from the organized labor movement, and sees itself as the ultimate protector of workers' rights.
Video images of South African police firing straight into crowds of stick- and machete-wielding protesters spread like wildfire over social media and South African news channels, and brought painful comparisons with the previous apartheid government's common use of extreme force with demonstrators. The difference here, of course, is that the apartheid government had represented the interests of a white minority, while the current African National Congress government projects itself as representing a multiracial majority.
Reuters news agency quoted South African police chief Riah Phiyega as justifying the use of live ammunition against the armed protesters, adding that two guards at the mine had been hacked to death by protesters at the mine on Tuesday.
"The police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group," Ms. Phiyega told a news conference.
It is tempting to draw comparisons between the Lonmin Platinum mine shooting and earlier police massacres, such as the 1960 Sharpeville shooting (in which at least 50 pro-democracy protesters were gunned down) or the 1976 Soweto riots (in which 360 student protesters were killed). Even the most crucial difference here – the skin color of the apartheid and ANC governments – makes the comparison more compelling. Shouldn't a black-majority government have avoided the deadly-force tactics against a crowd of black protesters?
Challenges for ANC government
But this week's Lonmin incident is more complicated than that, and it reveals challenges to the ANC government and its ability to speak on behalf of South Africa's impoverished black majority.
The trouble at the Lonmin platinum mine in the northwest province town of Marikana began more than a week ago, when organizers for a small split-away union called for a strike in search of higher wages and better working conditions. Organizers for the more radical Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union argue that the more established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has failed to protect the interests of workers, and that a more confrontational approach should be taken.
It's a message that resonates strongly in a country with an official 25 percent unemployment rate, but where unofficial jobless rates may be much higher, particularly among young black men. While the frustration of poor South Africans has yet to threaten the power of the powerful ANC – which counts the NUM's parent union, the Congress of South African Trades Unions, as a ruling coalition partner – violent street protests are common in South African informal settlements and townships, where access to clean drinking water, sewage service, electricity, and health care remains a problem, 18 years after the ANC came to power.
Such protests don't automatically translate into support for the anti-ANC opposition, because the strongest of the non-ANC parties are seen by black voters as past supporters of the apartheid regime. The Democratic Alliance (DA), which includes black and mixed-race members in its top leadership, many of whom were vocal opponents of apartheid, has positioned itself as a right-of-center, pro-business party, and has struggled to win support among poorer voters.
Those looking for an "Arab Spring" protest movement against South Africa's ANC government – including DA activists – are drawing the wrong lessons from a very real problem. Citizen and labor unrest in South Africa are powerful forces, drawing on longstanding feelings of neglect and betrayal. That anger can be channeled in the future by radical demagogues, such as the ANC Youth League's ousted president, Julius Malema, but it won't coalesce around parties that black voters see as antithetical to their interests.
But for now, citizen unrest is likely to bubble up town by town, worksite by worksite, in the same way that labor unrest sprang up in the United States during the labor movement's heyday, between World War I and World War II. As in South Africa, American mine workers faced deadly police force in numerous wildcat strikes, the deadliest of them being the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado on April 20, 1914.
As with Lonmin, mine workers attempted to form a more radical union in the Ludlow coal mine, but the mine's owners, Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, refused to negotiate with them. As the strike dragged on, Colorado militiamen were called into clear out the protester's tent city. At least 18 miners and family members were killed.
The real danger, thus, is not that South African labor unrest can be channeled to bring down the ANC government. The real danger is that growing frustration may not be channeled toward anything at all, positive or negative, and that it could become as seemingly permanent a feature of life in South Africa as power cuts and cricket matches, family cookouts and crime.