JOHANNESBURG — South Africa is just beginning to come to grips with the consequences of a deadly clash between police and striking workers at a platinum mine. Observers and politicians say the incident last Thursday, in which police shot and killed 34 people, could cause political turmoil - and some soul-searching.
When South African police shot and killed dozens of angry, protesting miners last week, two political leaders rushed to the scene.
Predictably, one of them was President Jacob Zuma.
The other was Julius Malema, a disgraced firebrand youth leader who has been expelled from the ruling African National Congress - but whose radical, militant comments about the incident could spell political trouble for the party.
Adam Habib, an analyst at the University of Johannesburg, says Malema correctly understood the shooting of striking workers at the Lonmin platinum mine for what it is: a political crisis. He says he doubts it will affect the outcome of next year’s presidential race, but that it will have an impact.
“I do think it will have dramatic political impacts, and in particular I think it’s going to provoke a kind of existential crisis in South Africa, about where they are and what a society this has become," he said. "It also suggests that the kind of culture, macho culture, of aggressiveness and shoot-to-kill that has been popularized by the police and Jacob Zuma himself when he came to power, has had some very, very destructive effects.”
The shooting is exactly the kind of thing Malema has been warning South Africa about for years: an angry, impoverished underclass rising up against its rich masters, with deadly consequences.
It has also prompted Malema to call on Zuma to resign.
Malema however is a bit of a contradiction.
Despite his proletarian talk about the need for a more militant miners union, he lives in Johannesburg’s ritziest suburb. As he advocates for miners to be paid about $18,000 a year, he has said he owes the government 27 million rand - that’s nearly $5 million - in taxes.
Malema’s representative did not respond to requests for comment.
South Africa is an economically-divided society. Expensive Maseratis cruise the streets of Johannesburg alongside tattered Toyota minibuses crammed with passengers. The nation is the world’s largest producer of platinum. Yet millions of poor South Africans live without basic services like water and electricity, and more than half of the population lives below the poverty line.
Ishmael Mnisi of the ANC says the ruling party is trying not to place blame. He said the public has not expressed a loss of faith in the party, and criticized Malema for speaking out.
“Well, we’re not going to talk about the utterances of Julius Malema. They are just unfortunate that a former leader of the ANC Youth League would utter such statements and shift blame for his own political understandings and manipulation," he said. "This is a serious matter. This is not an issue where people must play cheap politics on it."
Mnisi says ruling party leaders have accepted that they need to do more to address inequality.
“These are still challenges that South Africans face daily," he said. "And we have acknowledged that as the ANC, and the ANC and government have to do more to make sure that we change this [circumstance] and empower our people on all the fronts. We have also made an acknowledgement that there is more that needs to be done on the economic front in order for all the people of our country to enjoy the benefits of democracy. And we think we have not moved much as far as that is concerned.”
South Africa is now observing a week of mourning, as striking workers at the Lonmin mine decide whether to return back to work or face being fired.