Conflict & Justice

Striking South African miners gain new and controversial ally in Malema


Julius Malema (center), pictured at the Gold Fields Driefontein mine in Carletonville, South Africa on Sept. 11. Malema called on mine workers to strike until mining giants bow to a 12,500 rand (1,526 US dollar) basic salary demand. Malema, who was expelled early this year from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for ill-discipline, has quickly become a leading figure for workers.

Hopes that a month-long, often violent labor strike would end today were dashed when miners from the Lonmin mine in Marikana, South Africa rejected the company's wage offer. 

Miners have demanded 12,500 rand ($1,500) per month, and after Lonmin offered 5500 rand as a first offer (a 900-rand raise), they rejected the number, saying they couldn't live on that amount, Reuters reported Friday. 

The platinum and gold miners have been on strike and protesting with sticks and machetes on a hill overlooking the mine since mid-August. The situation came to head August 16 when 34 protesters were killed and another 78 injured, some say in retaliation for the deaths of two policemen who were hacked to death the week before by striking workers. 

Though they were originally seen as a power struggle between two competitive unions at one mine, (the National Union of Mineworkers and its newer rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union), the strikes have grown, and spread to other mines in the country. Now it's become clear that the unrest is a symptom of a larger situation unfolding in South Africa. That is, many both inside and outside the ruling ANC party, led by President Jacob Zuma, believe the president has lost his ability to lead, and workers are turning to former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema instead.

Zuma is seen by the AMCU miners as a capitalist fat cat who gives unwarranted benefits and favors to the NUM workers and other allied with his party. Meanwhile, Malema, who was kicked out of the party earlier this year for "ill-discipline," has re-emerged as the natural opposition to Zuma.

More from GlobalPost: New investigation indicates South African miners were murdered by police

Zuma faces an election in December, and although he has ordered an investigation into the violence at the Lonmin mine last month and has promised to crack down on anyone instigating more violence, "he has at times appeared flat-footed and wooden," according to a recent Reuters article.

In a country where 70 percent of the unemployed are between 18 and 35 years old and about 40 percent of the population still lives on less than $3 a day, the strikes and resulting police violence, combined with Malema's presence, have galvanized the working class.

Seen by many as a rabble-rousing opportunist, Malema is a charismatic if not incredibly effective speaker, and he's been touring mining towns, giving speeches urging miners to make the mines "ungovernable," demanding the mines be nationalized, and calling for a national strike, according to the Huffington Post.

"They have been stealing this gold from you," Malema called to thousands of cheering miners who blew vuvuzelas this week. "Now it is your turn. You want your piece of gold. These people are making billions from these mines."

Malema, at just 31 years old, is "styling himself an economic freedom fighter," says Reuters, and "has emerged as the face of a de facto 'Anyone but Zuma' campaign." He's also currently being investigated for fraud and tax evasion. 

The administration sees him as incredibly dangerous, and have pointedly kept their distance, from walking out of a memorial service for murdered miners that he spoke at, to taking military action. 

More from GlobalPost: Unrest continues at South Africa's troubled Lonmin platinum mine

Armed forces were put on high alert across the country on Tuesday, in direct response to Malema, the first time all bases had been ordered to increase readiness to the highest level since 1994, according to Business Day. Meanwhile, Malema insisted he was not attempting a coup, and that Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqukula should "take a chill pill." 

A recent editorial in the Independent Online harshly criticized Malema, saying, "For Julius Malema, any tragedy, societal ill or leadership vacuum — real or imagined — is an opportunity that must be grabbed to further political aims and objectives."

"Malema’s endgame is to mobilise anybody and everybody against Zuma before Mangaung [the election], weaken him beyond repair, convince not just the party, but the entire country and the world that Zuma cannot lead," wrote journalist Piet Rampedi. "By showing up at almost every anti-government or service delivery protest, he is creating a wedge between the government and the poor, especially the youth."

But whether he's opportunistic or something worse, Malema's return is a sign that Zuma may just be facing a real challenge in December.

According to numerous reports, officials both inside and outside the ANC are anxious for a change in leadership, especially after a question and answer session with parliament on Wednesday, during which Zuma "refused to delve into the Marikana issue, saying that MPs should await the findings of the commission of inquiry," according to 

As the labor strikes continue with no end in sight and rejection of wage offers from Lonmin, Zuma is getting hit hard politically and Malema is growing more popular with low-wage workers by the day. 

For more of GlobalPost's coverage of labor movements around the world, check out our Special Report "Worked Over: The Global Decline in Labor Rights."