Behind the massacre of miners
Forty-eight hours after South African police killed 34 striking miners last week, Julius Malema showed up at the Lonmin platinum mine north of Johannesburg to assign the blame.
“President Zuma said to the police they must act with maximum force,” Malema told a crowd of thousands of miners. “He presided over the murder of our people, and therefore he must step down . . . From today, when you are asked, ‘Who is your president?', you must say, ‘I don't have a president'.”
President Jacob Zuma was in Mozambique when the slaughter happened, and is unlikely to have given the police instructions on dealing with a local strike. But professional demagogues don't have to worry about the details, and Malema was fundamentally right in what he said next.
“Zuma doesn't care about the mine workers - he came here last night and met with whites,” Malema said. “It's not the white British [mine owners] who were killed. It was you.” And in a final slap at the governing African National Congress (from which he was recently expelled): “They only come to you when it's time for elections. Once you put that cross, they disappear.”
Malema fills the same role in today's South Africa that Winnie Mandela did in the dying days of apartheid in the early 1990s: the radical demagogue who uses violent, often anti-white invective to articulate the rage of the impoverished black majority. This terrifies South Africans who have something to lose.
Malema preaches hatred of the rich and hints at social revolution. The fact that he has become mysteriously rich himself at 31, although his only jobs were as an official of the ANC Youth League, doesn't bother his millions of admirers. They just want to see redistribution of the country's wealth in their favour, and they think Malema is their best bet.
They are probably wrong. Malema is ruthless and cunning enough to have a chance at winning power towards the end of this decade, when the ANC's political near-monopoly finally collapses. But he is not skilled enough, and perhaps not clever enough, to push through that sort of redistribution without destroying South Africa's industrial economy in the process.
It is now 18 years since the fall of apartheid, and a substantial class of prosperous middle-class blacks has emerged (together with a small group of very rich people with close links to the ANC).
However, the poor majority remain desperately poor, and they no longer trust the ANC to bring positive change in their lives. They are starting to defect politically, and the main battle is being fought on the territory of the trade unions.
Mining is South Africa's biggest industry, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is the country's biggest union. It is closely tied to the ANC, but many believe it is also in bed with the mine bosses. Cyril Ramaphosa (who chaired the ANC's disciplinary appeals committee when it expelled Malema from the party early this year) was the founder of the NUM 30 years ago but is now on Lonmin's board.
The Lonmin strike is actually a turf war. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (ACMU), a new, radical union, has been stealing NUM members, including three or four thousand of the 26,000 men working in Lonmin's platinum mine.
The ACMU promised to triple the workers' wages, and the violence began when it tried to stop NUM members from going to work.
Ten people were killed in clashes between the unions in mid-August, including two policemen who were hacked to death with machetes. So the police were understandably nervous last week when they faced an angry mob of about 3000 workers armed with machetes, spears and clubs.
Unleashing a torrent of automatic gunfire that killed 34 strikers and wounded 78 was an act of gross indiscipline, but frightened men, even if they have far better weapons, will not always respond in a measured and disciplined way when they are under attack. The reflex, unfortunately, is to hold the trigger down and spray the threat with bullets.
Nobody wanted this tragedy to occur, and it is unlikely to happen again in the same way.
Zuma will still probably be re-elected as the leader of the ANC in December and go on to a second term as president.
There will be a commission of inquiry, and judges will reach conclusions and make recommendations.
But the main political beneficiaries of the incident are the forces that are trying to loosen the grip of the ANC's old guard on the unions and the country.
It has been an auspicious occasion for Malema, who is trying to position himself as the only real alternative to Zuma and his gang. Later, the Lonmin massacre may come to be seen as a turning point in South Africa's history. Or not, because history does not run on rails.
■ Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.