What happened at Marikana will be burned into the collective memories of South Africans for many years to come. A blast of gunfire, a cloud of dust, armed police leaning over the bodies of miners. It was a scene reminiscent of apartheid which repulsed people here and the world over.
The illegal strike by workers at the Lonmin platinum mine for higher wages sparked a series of similar strikes elsewhere that lasted for months. They are almost all over now but the labour unrest revealed a growing sense of frustration, anger and resentment directed at the governing African National Congress (ANC) over the too-slow pace of change, of improvements in people's lives.
|The unrest revealed a growing resentment at the slow pace of change in post-apartheid South Africa [GALLO/GETTY]
The level of disenchantment is evident in the nature of the strikes. Most were illegal in that they happened outside of the established wage bargaining system.
Normally pay is negotiated by a union, the most powerful one being the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers). It is the biggest organisation in the umbrella trade union group COSATU. That is significant because COSATU is one of the ANC's partners in the governing tripartite alliance. NUM lost a great deal of credibility during the strikes as it appeared to have lost touch with its grassroots members and become too consumed with the business of influencing the running of the country.
NUM rival the AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) was accused of stoking the unrest, but in the end the Lonmin miners said they were not represented by any union. It was always unclear exactly where their huge pay rise demands (in some cases triple their basic pay) came from. A resolution was only reached because an existing wage deal was reopened and the miners were allowed to represent themselves, without first agreeing to end all hostilities (before the police shooting, 10 people had been killed in violence blamed on inter union rivalry).
That the Lonmin miners and thousands of others were able to win pay rises outside of the normal procedures, (and in many cases while using violence and intimidation), sets a precedent that may be impossible to break.
It is no coincidence that this year has been so marred by labour unrest; miners, truck drivers, car manufacturing, health, farm and municipal workers all took to the streets. The voices of opposition were louder than normal because in December the ANC elects its leaders, so the months building up to the conference where this takes place were predicted to be restive. But the speed at which the strikes spread and their ferocity not only tells us how frustrated people are, but that the ANC's opponents have grown very bold in stoking unrest and capitalising on public discontent, with miners openly calling for the ANC's downfall.
|The strikes at Marikana soon spread elsewhere [Reuters]
The ANC does have hundreds of years of colonialism and decades of apartheid to overcome. But 18 years after democracy started, South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies in the world.
The government has built three million homes - yet 12 million people, a quarter of the population, are still without a proper roof over their heads.
While access to healthcare and education is free, in the public sector services are generally poor. And in a recent international survey South Africa was rated third to last out of 63 countries for its standards of mathematics and reading. But what is perhaps more concerning is that it scored substantially below international averages compared to similar countries.
It is difficult for individuals to change their own circumstances when there simply are not enough jobs. One-in-four people are unemployed - and among young people that figure is more like 50 percent. So although people have their freedom, the burden of apartheid's legacy has proven too heavy for the ANC to break.
For now the streets are calm, a commission of inquiry is picking over the deaths at Marikana, trying to come up with an explanation. The strikes have left no one in or outside of South Africa under any illusion that this country does not have some serious challenges to overcome.
In the short term the situation for the mining industry does not look good, particularly in platinum. Shafts have closed and about 15,000 miners have been sacked. Both Moody's and Standard & Poor have downgraded the country's credit rating, making it more expensive for the country to borrow and signalling greater risk to investors.
|The fact that some strikers secured pay rises outside of normal negotiating procedures may have set a precedent [Reuters]
That unease is not helped by the debate over nationalisation. Although the government has ruled out wholesale nationalisation, it has said that there will be greater state intervention in mining. But the ANC has not detailed how it thinks that should take place – and that indecisiveness will make investors more anxious and likely to hold onto their cash. That can only have a negative impact on an industry that contributes about 19 percent of the country's GDP.
The ANC is by far the dominant political force here and that is not going to change in the near future. It is the party of liberation - having led the struggle against white racist rule - so millions of people cannot or do not want to see an alternative.
The country's main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, is widely viewed as a white party. So it is hard for people who feel short changed to take their vote elsewhere.
The strikes may have dented the ANC's image - and there will be many within its rank and file who will have a heightened sense of awareness of the issues it highlighted - but essentially it will only be damaged if it loses votes at the next general election in 2014.
That really will be one to watch, because it will be the first time that the Born Frees (those born after 1994) will be able to vote. Some will feel the ANC genuinely does have the answers, some will feel obliged to vote for the ANC based on its struggle credentials, but others may take their vote elsewhere.
Source: Al Jazeera