Phumelele Gura survived a barrage of police bullets and more than two weeks in prison, where he lay awake listening to the sound of workmates allegedly being tortured. His grandfather and his father backed the African National Congress (ANC). He no longer will.
“I won’t vote for the ANC next time because they failed the people,” he said. “My family always voted ANC, but we don’t trust it any more.”
Gura, 49, is not alone in thinking the events of Aug. 16 marked a tectonic shift in South Africa. That was the day when police, enforcing the will of the country’s black majority government, opened fire on striking miners, killing 34 and injuring 78.
The massacre represented “probably the lowest moment in the short history of a democratic South Africa,” wrote Cyril Ramaphosa, a senior figure in the ANC and a former mining union leader.
Comparisons were made with the bloodiest days of racial apartheid: Sharpeville, Soweto, now Marikana.
Three weeks on, the strike persists and the dust has not settled. However, it is increasingly apparent that this tragedy has shaken faith in the ANC and its union allies as never before; that it has focused scrutiny on the exploitative 140-year relationship between foreign capital and black labor and led some to speculate that the tinderbox of South African inequality is just a spark away from conflagration.
Mining has powered the South African economy, and warped its society, since the arrival of the empire builder Cecil Rhodes.
Like many of the millions who burrowed underground to extract diamonds, gold and other minerals, Gura came a long way from home in search of a working wage. He found it as a rock driller at the Marikana platinum mine, owned by the British-based company Lonmin.
“It’s hard work and sometimes you drill the rock and a rock falls down on you,” he said.
Gura said he lived in a tin shack with a pit toilet and intermittent electricity and water. He earned about 5,000 rand (US$600) a month and, like many workers here, sent a portion home to his family in Eastern Cape province. He ran for his life when the shooting began on Aug. 16, but was arrested and jailed.
“From my cell I could hear the police beating my brothers, telling them to speak what they want,” he said.
His partner, Primrose Magwangqana, 45, was afraid she would never see him again.
“I thought he was dead,” she said. “They said to some people, ‘your husband is in prison,’ but later they found out he was in the mortuary.”
She too feels betrayed by the party she supported all her life.
“I am an ANC member but I won’t vote for them next time because they failed us. Only [the expelled youth leader] Julius Malema helped us,” she said.
Striking mineworkers interviewed in Marikana last week echoed the sentiment. The ANC, the party of former South African president Nelson Mandela, which liberated black South Africans and is celebrating its centenary year, can no longer take their support for granted.
Samkele Mpampani, 36, a ringleader who marched on another Lonmin mineshaft on Wednesday, said: “I won’t vote ANC. They have killed our workers. I don’t recognize the ANC any more. [South African President] Jacob Zuma must step down. It’s over now. It’s over.”
Before Marikana the ANC was already bleeding electoral support and sinking into factionalism. The party is accused of enriching a tiny black elite while failing to bring decent education, healthcare and jobs to the poor.