International investors – institutional and private alike – with any degree of exposure to South Africa’s mining industry must – or certainly should – be taking a long hard look at the integrity of that investment going forward. As the strike at Lonmin’s (LON:LMI) Marikana platinum mine enters a second month, with reports at press time of the brutal killing of a ‘scab’ worker adding to the already bloody history of this particular industrial action, and with an outbreak of wildcat strikes elsewhere in the industry over the last week, it’s clear that South Africa’s key economic sector is in some new, dark phase of its post-apartheid era.
At one level, that seized on by both domestic and international media when the Lonmin action started, the strike is purely a manifestation of rivalry within organised labour in South Africa’s mining industry. According to this view, the rock-drillers at the Marikana mine had come under the sway of a militant new union – the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) – seeking to usurp the power-base long held by the National Union of Miners (NUM). They – the drillers – were called out in protest at Lonmin’s British management’s refusal to negotiate on their demand, orchestrated by AMCU but opposed by NUM, for a nearly three-fold wage increase. AMCU’s leadership portray their NUM counterparts as corrupted by that union’s intimate relations with South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), which in turn – according to the AMCU version – is in the pocket of big, and especially big foreign, business, notably in the mining sector.
But as the Lonmin strike drags on, and as its rival platinum miner Impala Platinum Holdings (LON:IPLA) and gold miner Gold Fields Inc (NYSE:GSI) also become embroiled in strike action, a wider picture is emerging. Of the mining industry as the chosen frontline in nothing less than a major power play in South African politics – quite possibly the most serious challenge which the still-venerated ANC has had to face in the 18 years since the end of apartheid. And whether or not that challenge proves effective, there is also raised at least the prospect of some degree of nationalisation of the country’s mining industry.
Malema’s rapid rise through the ranks of the ANC came not from worker but from youth representation. According to his Wikipedia entry, at the age of 20 – in the year, reportedly, he graduated from high-school - Malema became the chairman of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas). In 2008, aged 27, he was elected to the presidency of the ANC Youth League, the organisation founded by leading black activists, including Nelson Mandela, in 1944 and banned throughout the apartheid era.
Not so long ago identified by President Zuma as a future presidential contender, Malema’s fall from grace in the ANC – he was formally expelled from the party earlier this year – followed from the increasingly strident – and racist – nationalism he has brought to his many public appearances. His anti-white stance came to be epitomised by his repeated singing of the apartheid struggle song Ayasab' amagwala (The cowards are scared), which includes the line ‘Dubul' ibhunu’ – shoot the boer – and which had been defined as hate speech by the South African Human Rights Commission.
And, following a visit to Zimbabwe in 2010, Malema also made no secret of his admiration for the measures taken by Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party to nationalise the farms of white farmers and turn the land over to black Zimbabweans.
Since appearing before the Lonmin strikers two days after the police shootings, Malema has addressed striking miners across the country, taking every opportunity to lambaste the ANC, President Zuma, and the NUM. By way of illustration, when speaking to workers at the Grootvlei gold-mine of insolvent Aurora Empowerment Systems, a company run by Jacob Zuma’s nephew and Nelson Mandela’s grandson and whose miners haven’t been paid for more than two years, Malema had this to say:
“White people bought favours with our leaders. They gave them shares and they killed NUM.”
This actually is a translation from the African language – perhaps Northern Sotho - Malema was using. His oratory is a curious admixture of indigenous language and English, he switching from one to the other, often mid-sentence and seemingly at random though presumably for effect.
The seemingly entrenched position of the ANC – supported by the NUM – is that nationalisation of the country’s mines is not open for debate. And Malema is routinely mocked in the South African and international media for his outrageous demands and overtly anti-white rhetoric. Fatuously he was included in Time magazine’s list of ‘Least Influential People of 2010’. He is also, reportedly, under continuing investigation for influence-peddling in relation to procurement tenders in his home province of Limpopo.
Malema may not have the respect of the ANC leadership – which may or may not undergo internal regime change at the party’s December conference in Mangaung – but he plainly is listened to by mine-workers and even his critics accept that despite his expulsion he continues to command solid support within the ANC Youth League, a critical organ in the party’s political structure.
It’s very early days but an expansion of industrial action in the mining industry – and especially a repeat of the gross violence of 16 August at Lonmin’s Marikana mine – could see a broadening of support for Malema’s calls for nationalisation. Or at least for a much more substantial worker stake in an industry which is undeniably controlled by foreign – and especially British – interests and which continues to pay its workers at apartheid-era rates. Malema himself may not be the agent of such change but by continuing to hammer the message he may induce – or force - more conservative and respected political voices to come out in support of the country’s mineworkers.