By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant editor

Julius Malema, the expelled youth leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is using South Africa’s mine tragedy to try to propel himself back into the political arena. After police killed 34 and injured 78 in a shootout with striking workers at the Lonmin platinum mine outside Rustenburg last week, Malema travelled to the region and, speaking to a 3,000-strong crowd, called on President Jacob Zuma to step down over the ‘massacre’.

The firebrand political organiser wants mines nationalised. He has remained involved with the dispute this week, accompanying striking miners when they opened murder cases against the police and addressing a memorial service for the dead miners earlier today.

The dispute at the Marikana mine has highlighted the continuing deep inequalities in South Africa, two decades after the end of apartheid. It began over miners’ demands for the British-owned Lonmin for a wage increase. However, tensions have been fuelled by a power struggle between rival unions over membership among South Africa’s platinum miners.

The more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) accuses the dominant National Union of Miners (NUM), which has close links to the ANC through the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), of being too cosy with company bosses and politicians. The AMCU reportedly promised workers the raise, increasing its support in the mine, then embarked on the illegal strike to force the pay hike.

The shootings deeply shocked South Africa, as a reminder of a violent past. Police say they acted in self-defence. President Zuma has ordered an inquiry and declared a six day period of mourning. With more than 250 arrested at Marikana, many miners remain unaccounted for, and unrest is spreading to other mining companies.

Thrown out of the ANC in March 2012 for sowing discord and bringing the party into disrepute, Malema has described himself as an ‘expelled child’ waiting at the ANC gates ‘for the day the parents will change their mind’ and let him back in. Malema sees the Lonmin dispute as a way to discredit Zuma, who is seeking another term as ANC president in December.

‘Malema is using the tragedy to try to project an alternative leader image, perhaps for the benefit of attracting the attention of disenchanted members of the ANC,’ says Daniel Silke, a political analyst and author.

The charismatic ‘JuJu’, as Malema is nicknamed, was once widely seen as a possible future ANC leader, but many now regard him as dangerous. He called for Zimbabwe-style expropriation of farms and was found guilty of hate speech.  The Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille has called him a ‘dictator- in –waiting’.  An IISS Strategic Comment last year described Malema as the ‘ideological split of the ANC, personified’, and the product of a party disintegrating.

Nevertheless, his accusation that the ANC has failed to deliver on its economic promises while enriching a small black elite resonates with many, and he has proven himself adept at tapping into the anger of young black audiences.

Protests are common in the mining industry, where conditions remain tough for workers.However, it is difficult to quantify exactly how poorly paid the miners are, and how reasonable their demands are. Firstly, there are competing reports as to how much miners currently earn, and how much they have been demanding.

Secondly, a benchmark is difficult to define. According to March 2012 employment statistics, the average monthly wage in South Africa is R13,200, but some argue that the median income, which was R2800 in 2010, is a more accurate reflection of economic realities. A study on the monthly earnings in South Africa indicates that about three-quarters of South African workers earn less than R6,500 a month; the top 10% above R12,000.

Nevertheless, questions have also been asked about Lonmin’s behaviour in threatening to sack miners if they did not return to work. It was forced to backtrack when the government said this was not appropriate during a period of mourning.

South Africa produces 75% of the world’s platinum, but until very recently prices and demand have been weak. Lonmin, as a leading player, says it has been struggling. It also may sell more shares to recover the losses caused by the strike. A 9% pay increase for Lonmin miners kicks in on 1 October as scheduled.

Meanwhile, whether Malema can use the unrest to make a permanent political comeback is moot. He has claimed that his expulsion from the ANC would be automatically overturned if Zuma loses the party’s presidency. But ‘I would say this is 80% posturing, 20% wishful thinking on Malema’s part,’ Silke says. ‘There is nothing to suggest that, should Zuma not get re-elected, this would somehow allow Malema to return.’

Silke explains that several senior ANC personalities, not just Zuma himself, would not want him near the party even as an ordinary member, never mind in in a position of power.

Even if Malema does not return to the fold, the ANC faces many challenges in the coming months as the leadership race heats up. The fallout and lost political capital from the mine clashes will likely add more tension to its internal conflicts.

‘Since his expulsion, Malema has been seeking to exacerbate the existing instability within the ANC,’ says Silke. ‘I think he will continue to go down this track – rather than launch his own entity – in the hopes that the party further ruptures over the next year or longer, and that then they will be more receptive to his more populist message.’

According to analyst William Gumede, the president’s position is not as secure as he would like. It is far from clear if COSATU will back Zuma’s re-election in December. Even if he is re-elected, it could split the party and he could be ousted before he finishes his term.

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