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S. African Miners' Deaths Test ANC's Popularity

A group of protestors holds placards as a large crowd follows retired judge Ian Farlam and his team as they inspect the area where the bodies of mine workers were found after the shootings at Lonmin's platinum mine in Marikana near Rustenburg, South Africa, October 1, 2012.
South Africa was stunned by the images of police killing 34 striking miners earlier this year, an act of police-inflicted carnage not seen since the apartheid days. But four months after the strike and shooting at the Marikana platinum mine, the event has changed South African workers' perceptions about the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

As South Africa's ruling party meets this week to hash out leadership and policy issues, there is growing discontent among a group considered vital to their base: the workers.

The ANC's image was dented on August 16, when police fired into a crowd of striking miners at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana. After the dust settled, 34 of the wildcat strikers were dead. Police said they fired in self-defense; an investigation is ongoing.

The killings angered many South African workers, especially in the mining sector, and many say they can't keep supporting the party that promised them equality and freedom in the post-apartheid era.

Perhaps miner Tholakele Dlunga said it best in November when he stood up in front of a crowd in Johannesburg and spoke emotionally about the events surrounding the strike at the Lonmin mine.

In the end, the workers at the Lonmin platinum mine got a settlement close to the raise they were seeking.

But if Dlunga, who goes by the name Bhele, is any indication, they lost their faith.

The police, he said through an interpreter, don't understand we are workers and we are fighting for our right to an increase.

Bhele said the shooting changed his politics. We will not vote for the ANC, he said, because the ANC killed our people. We are not sure that we will even vote.

South Africa remains a country riven by inequality. The average white household makes nearly six times what an average black household makes, according to recently released census figures.

This, says the ANC Youth League, highlights the message they have been pushing: that political freedom without economic emancipation is meaningless.

Youth League spokeswoman Khusela Sangoni-Khawe says the league is reaching out to young workers. The league is pushing for a bolder program of land redistribution and nationalization of some mining operations, which it says should level the playing field.

Sangoni-Khawe also says the ANC's poor leadership has contributed to the loss of faith.

"We may have lost the confidence of the people as the ANC, because it no longer became about the people, but it rather became about individuals at any other level seeking to rather position themselves and what it is they can gain from leading in those structures rather than leading them properly," said Sangoni-Khawe. "So we will be keen, and it is something we are doing, where we are engaging workers in those particular sectors."

Analyst Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, says no one should worry about workers' change of allegiance.

"That's not concerning, we live in a democracy," Friedman noted. "If people don't want to vote for the ANC, they're perfectly entitled to vote for someone else, and in fact that's what they did. There was a municipal election in Marikana, and the ANC lost to the independent candidate."

The ANC's hold on the country as a whole will be tested in the next national elections, set for 2014.