Unfulfilled Promises Are Replacing Prospects of a Better Life in South Africa
By Lydia Polgreen, NY Times, October 13, 2012
TEMBISA, South Africa—When Morris Sello arrived in Johannesburg from his home province of Limpopo in 1994, his horizons seemed limitless. Apartheid, the oppressive hand that smothered opportunity for black people for decades, was gone. He dreamed of a slice of the life white South Africans had enjoyed for years: a good job, a house, a car, good schools for his children.
He found a job as a truck driver. But nothing else has worked out the way he planned. Instead of a house, he lives with his wife and four children in a fetid shack in this sprawling township. A car is unthinkable. The local schools are abysmal, and his faith that his children will do better in life is ebbing.
“I hope they can do better,” he said, a mix of resignation and despair in his voice. “I hope.”
Mr. Sello was among tens of thousands of workers to walk off the job in the biggest wave of labor unrest to hit South Africa since the end of apartheid. Wildcat strikes by gold, platinum and iron ore miners have crippled one of South Africa’s most important industries, prompting the nation’s first credit rating downgrade in nearly two decades and a slide in the country’s currency, the rand, to a three-year low.
And the troubles are far from over. The truck drivers have ended their nearly three-week strike, but not before causing food and fuel shortages that sent shudders through an already struggling economy. The mine strikes have dragged on, and some municipal workers have announced plans to join the picket lines as well.
South Africa’s economy was already ailing. The crisis in Europe, its largest trading partner, has taken a grim toll. Amid the slump, hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared. Economists are cutting their already anemic growth forecasts for South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy.
Infighting among leaders of the ruling African National Congress has all but paralyzed the government’s response. Much of South Africa’s political elite are focusing on whether President Jacob Zuma’s deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, or another rival will challenge him as head of the party and president of the country. In explaining its downgrade of South Africa, Moody’s said that it acted in part because of “increased concerns about South Africa’s future political stability.”
South African employers and unions have long had rancorous relations, and strikes are a common feature of life here. But this time seems to be different. While the unrest is specifically about pay, it has tapped a deep well of anger among the employed, who are frustrated with the African National Congress, which came to power in 1994 at the end of white rule promising “a better life for all.”
Nowadays, the party is increasingly seen as interested mainly in self-enrichment, an impression underscored by reports that the government is paying for $27 million in renovations to Mr. Zuma’s private village home, ostensibly for security reasons. The project is the subject of multiple investigations.
Altogether, the labor unrest, broad disillusionment, dimming economic prospects and political inertia represent perhaps the most serious crisis South Africa’s young democracy has faced.
“In 1994 there were massive problems, but there was also a massive amount of hope,” said William Gumede, a political analyst. “Now people feel hopeless. People have lost confidence in all of these institutions they trusted will make a difference, like the unions and the A.N.C. The new institutions of democracy—Parliament, the courts—people have also lost confidence that those can protect them and help them. That is why they go for violence and take law into own hands.”
South Africa’s peaceful transformation from brutal white rule to a nonracial democracy has been called a miracle, but in reality it was something more pragmatic and, its architects hoped, more durable: a grand bargain. Full voting rights for all would end white political rule. White-dominated capitalism remained in place, but aggressive programs to include blacks were created. Workers were given the right to strike, but unions linked arms with the A.N.C.
Now the terms of that bargain are increasingly unacceptable to South Africa’s poor, threatening to unravel the fragile consensus that kept Africa’s richest economy going through a tumultuous transition.
According to the Afrobarometer, a survey completed last year, 47 percent of South Africans rated the country’s economic condition as “very bad” or “fairly bad.” The survey found that 41 percent said their living conditions were at least “fairly bad.” Asked whether the country was headed in the right direction, 46 percent said “yes,” and the same percentage said “no.”
These frustrations have boiled into violence in the past two months as illegal strikes have roiled the mining industry. It began when rock drill operators at a platinum mine in Marikana walked off the job in August, and spiraled out of control when the police opened fire on them, killing 34. The workers ultimately won a hefty pay increase, and other miners have adopted their tactics. Reuters reported that about 1,000 protesters were dispersed by police using tear gas and rubber bullets near Rustenburg on Friday night. No injuries were reported.
Carrying traditional weapons like clubs, spears and machetes, the workers have provided a menacing spectacle on the news and frightened international investors. Most of the strikers were not members of the National Union of Mineworkers, the country’s largest union and part of the trade union group that is allied with the A.N.C. They had left the union for more radical upstarts, painting the old-line unions as too complacent with power and wealth.
The crisis has prompted mainstream unions to take a tougher line. “We don’t want cowards in the struggle, comrades,” declared one transport union leader at a rally in Johannesburg.
The A.N.C.’s actions since the end of apartheid are notable. A government program to give houses to the poor has put roofs over the heads of 2.5 million families. More than 15 million South Africans get small but essential welfare grants to stay afloat. Electricity and running water have become available to millions of black South Africans for the first time.
But schools in townships and rural areas are a shambles. Hunger and disease still gnaw at the poorest. Unemployment is rife. And the misery is not equally shared: South Africa also has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality. A tiny, wealthy black elite has emerged, while millions more remain in poverty.
Workers like Mr. Sello are supposed to be the lucky ones. They have jobs, unlike more than a quarter of their fellow citizens (the jobless rate is even higher among young black people). Still, Mr. Sello struggles to live on his take-home pay of about $650 a month. There are the usual expenses—rent and food—plus many costs resulting from the government’s failure to provide basic services.
The schools in Tembisa, a black township that dates to apartheid, are so bad that he sends his children to distant suburban schools. With no reliable public transportation there, Mr. Sello spends as much as a quarter of his salary on minibus fares for his children. His younger brother is unemployed and has a child, and his mother depends on him, too. Crime is a constant worry—three times his cellphone was stolen; his house was broken into and all of his clothing taken.
“The money I get is never enough,” Mr. Sello said.
His salary is too high to qualify for a free government house, too low to qualify for a mortgage. His eldest son, Kgomotso, hopes to become a doctor, but Mr. Sello said he had nothing saved for tuition. “I tell him, study hard, don’t end up like me,” Mr. Sello said. “But I don’t know where the money for varsity will come from.”
His early hopes have disappeared. He voted in 1994’s euphoric election, and again in 1999. But he did not vote in the last election, in 2008, and has no plans to do so in the next presidential election, in 2014.
“I am very disappointed in this government,” Mr. Sello said. “I lost faith in them. They are stealing too much and leaving us with nothing.”