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South Africa: A Third World Country with a First World Headache

South Africa is facing its biggest political challenge since President Mandela first took the oath of office:

Security guards at a South African gold mine fired rubber bullets into a crowd of protesters armed with iron rods and sticks, injuring four people and offering another glimpse of the turmoil upending the country’s mining industry.

The incident, which took place on Monday at a mine belonging to Gold One International Ltd., 30 miles east of Johannesburg, bore similarities to the clash last month between protesting miners and police that left 34 protesters dead.

Since then, a series of illegal, wildcat strikes have hit South Africa’s mines, leaving political and industry leaders—as well as police and state prosecutors—groping for a response.

The struggle between mine workers, mining companies, and the government is not a struggle between the haves and have-nots; it’s a struggle between the have-a-littles and the have-a-lots with the true have-nots likely to lose no matter what.

WRM visited a working gold mine in South Africa some years ago and spent a few minutes drilling a hole into a wall of rock almost two miles below the earth’s surface. It was hot, cramped, dangerous and scary work, and he still reminds interns when they complain that the Via Meadia intern pens are much nicer than African mines. These are hard jobs and working in a South African mine for not a lot of money is not a life of privilege. But in South Africa, miners are among the lucky ones who have jobs with benefits in a formal sector. Unionized mine workers, like civil servants and others, live much better than the large majority of South Africans.

The trouble is that the efforts of unionized workers to get better wages and safer working conditions from the mines, however justified those efforts may be, complicate the problems of creating jobs for those who have nothing at all. The state needs to skim as much revenue as possible off the mines in order to provide services to the extremely poor population, but the mines must still provide international investors with rates of profit that attract investment into the country. That typically means squeezing the miners.

Unemployed South Africans can only hope to get work if South Africa can compete with Asian countries for low-wage manufacturing in, for example, the textile industry. But South Africa’s union movement understandably doesn’t want to see labor legislation watered down. Meanwhile, labor troubles in the mines create concerns among both foreign and domestic investors.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the political and economic elites in South Africa live well, even by first world standards. If the mine owners and the politicians live like rich Europeans and North Americans, the miners ask, why shouldn’t mine workers live like First World workers as well? And while the elite uses the needs of the have-nothings to justify calls to fight mine union demands, there are some who think the elites are more interested in continuing to feather their own nests than in actually helping the poor.

As has been true since the arrival of majority rule, there is no simple and straightforward path that South Africa can follow. South Africa’s leaders must wrestle with some of the trickiest social and economic dilemmas facing any group of leaders anywhere in the world. Worryingly, over time the difficulties seem to be increasing.

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