South Africa’s miners and Zuma’s future

By Mark Rosenberg

South African politics is broiling. The exceptional violence surrounding the wildcat strike at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine -- where police killed 34 strikers and 10 people died in an inter-union clash -- reflects poorly on the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, who is up for re-election as head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). By weakening Zuma's allies and strengthening his foes, the Marikana incident and its aftermath make Zuma's hold on the ANC presidency-and thus the presidency of South Africa-extremely tenuous.

The most immediate political victim of Marikana is the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest affiliate of the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The violence at Marikana began with clashes between members of the NUM and the splinter Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has exploited discontent over NUM-negotiated wages and its perceived coziness with management to make significant inroads into the NUM's membership rolls throughout the platinum industry. Meanwhile, the NUM has faced similar criticisms from COSATU's acerbic Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi, who has accused the union of favoring management and higher-skilled workers over its rank-and-file. The NUM, for its part, has accused Vavi of sowing dissension in its ranks, and its leaders have been at the forefront of a politically-driven effort to replace Vavi at COSATU's upcoming elective conference in September. Given Marikana -- where the NUM was utterly unable to contain the situation -- Vavi's criticisms will reverberate within COSATU, whose leaders are freshly focused on preventing the kind of union splintering which has struck the NUM. As a result, the NUM's influence in the federation -- and thus its challenge to Vavi's leadership -- will be weakened.

This damages Zuma, who is close to the NUM and has actively pushed for Vavi -- a former ally and now vocal Zuma critic -- to be replaced. Vavi's likely re-election will probably deprive Zuma of COSATU's endorsement heading into the ANC's December elective conference in Mangaung. COSATU is in a "governing alliance" with the ANC, and many of its 1.8 million members are also members of the ruling party: Its rejection of Zuma (whom the labor federation forcefully endorsed in 2007) will not only cost the incumbent votes, but it will also highlight Zuma's weakness among his erstwhile base. Indeed, the COSATU conference may well spur anti-Zuma factions to push Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe into a more explicit challenge to the party's leadership. Motlanthe -- who is closer to Vavi and favored by the ANC's more statist elements -- is Zuma's most viable challenger, though he has thus far been reluctant to take on Zuma directly.

Zuma's hold on the ANC presidency is also threatened by direct political fallout from Marikana. The fact that Zuma ordered police to bring the Lonmin strike under control has exposed him to accusations of being aligned with (mostly white-owned) mining companies and of complicity in the miners' deaths. Leading the anti-Zuma charge is Julius Malema, the expelled ANC Youth League leader and populist demagogue. While Malema has no official influence in the ANC election, he is still viewed sympathetically by the party's "nationalist" faction and its youth wing. More broadly, the incident reinforces the impression that Zuma is a leader who is not in control of his government or his party. His consensus style of leadership is not suitable for containing ANC factionalism or the rise in popular discontent among many of the ANC's core supporters, opening a window to potential challengers such as Motlanthe at Manguang in December. 

Mark Rosenberg is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Africa practice.