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S Africa Calls in the Army in Mine Violence

News comes from the London Telegraph that the South African army is prepared to step in to assist the police in the ongoing miner’s strike. The FT reports that 150 army personnel are already there — and that foreign investors are dumping their shares in South Africa’s troubled mine sector.

That is just one more sign that South Africa today is looking more and more like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The animals organized to get rid of the exploitative farmers, but a small number of ambitious, conniving and lucky animals took the opportunity to replace the old masters. “Some are more equal than others” in South Africa today, and the old elite and the new elite have merged.

Specifically, a relative handful of ANC leaders and other well connected or clever black leaders have made it into the formerly all-white economic and political elite that runs the country, but otherwise the way the country runs has not much changed. Liberation integrated the old South African power structure but otherwise left the country unchanged: that, at least is what many of the striking miners and their supporters around the country feel.

In so many ways the both the economic picture and the government’s reaction to the mine strike look like the old times in South Africa: a tiny handful of people controls the levers of power. Miners, living in shantytowns and hostels, often far from their families, toil at dangerous, noisy jobs far below the surface of the earth, earning a pittance for backbreaking work — yet the miners are among the lucky ones. Much of the population can’t get jobs of any kind, and when they do, the pay and sometimes even the working conditions are often worse than what the miners get.

Next to the elites and the professionals who service them, the best off are the higher civil servants. In the old days the good civil service jobs were all white; these days the civil service is increasingly integrated with blacks moving rapidly up the hierarchy, but the relationship of the civil service to society as a whole hasn’t changed much: it remains a first world institution in a third world country and middle ranking and senior level bureaucrats especially continue to live better than the people they govern.

In the old days, whenever the miners — whose labor produced much of the wealth that sustained the living standards of the elite and the civil service — went on strike, the government responded with brutality and kangaroo courts. The elite took stern measures to crush anybody who challenged its privileges. That is how the government’s response to the current strike looks to many South Africans, especially after police killed 34 miners in a bloody confrontation — and the courts then charged the strikers with murder.

That’s not completely fair, of course. Under the ANC much has been attempted to improve the lot of South Africa’s poor. But progress has been slow, and the black power elite now looks remote, uncaring and corrupt to many people at the bottom of the pyramid.

This week the world’s attention has been fixed on the violence in the Middle East; in South Africa, too, there is a real crisis. The country’s democratic institutions and liberal economic policies are under attack — by corruption and greed within, and by anger and frustration without. As foreign investors, frightened by the violence and the likelihood of a long political deadlock, pull their money out of the country (and as tourists stay away) the risk grows that the political and economic problems could set up a feedback loop. Bad economic news makes the politics worse, and bad political news (like more riots) further weakens the economy.

So far, South Africa has consistently defied the skeptics, and its democratic institutions and liberal policies survive. Will that be true in another ten years?

Stay tuned.

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