Marikana Massacre: A Lesson for Africa

Posted by on Nov 6, 2013

Marikana Massacre: A Lesson for Africa

A year after the tragic Marikana Massacre, where over 46 people were killed, the soul of South Africa remains haunted. Last year September, in this column, I dealt with some of the contributing factors that culminated in this tragedy. As South Africa struggles to come to terms with this appalling incidence and its multifarious ramifications, I believe the rest of the continent has much to learn from it too.


The world over, the history has shown that social development assumes meaning only when the public policy consciously and actively promotes the wellbeing of the working classes and the poor within the society. Focusing on poverty alleviation and the working class welfare does not necessarily mean neglecting the broader interests within the society. In fact taking care of the poorer groups is also partly about securing the sustainability of the well-off classes over time.


This is particularly pertinent for Africa at a time when its growth and development process has gathered real momentum. During such periods of sustained growth, two trends emerge. One is the fact that politicians and policy makers   equate robust GDP growth and its resultant rising per capita income with the betterment of the poor. The second fact is that during periods of sustained growth, the income disparity rises sharply before it moderates over time.  This, the so called “J-Curve” of economic growth dynamics, embodies serious consequences for socio-political stability. Operationally, the shape  of the “J” differs vastly from society to society. The first phase, when income disparities rise, can take many years, even decades, depending on the efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector in the country.


During this period socio-political stability is vulnerable to the rising social discontent. In such times, the relative and visible improvements in the fortunes of the rich together with their conspicuous display of wealth do not sit comfortably with the misery of the struggling classes within the society. In effect, in periods of high growth, the public policy makers and political leaders should be more, not less, worried about the plight of the poor and use the available resources to deal with the underlying structural issues of income maldistribution and poverty trap.


In all likelihood, the Marikana Massacre would not have happened if South Afirca’s political and business leadership remained focused on alleviating the crushing burden of workers’ plight- in this case that of the mine workers. Social and other structural imbalances, inherited from whatever past, do not self-correct. Economic growth generates the required resources and creates the general social receptivity for corrective actions, but sustained and honest political will, underpinned by institutional capability, is needed to effect meaningful improvement in the plight of the poor. Political slogans and ideological sloganeering are dangerous substitutes for a value-based commitment to the removal of the drivers of income disparities.


To the extent that Africa’s current growth momentum is driven by the natural resources sector, South Africa’s experience offers many “how-not-do-lessons”. It is a fact that all over the world, the mining industry is synonymous with the destruction of the environment, land disposition and the use of land potentially useable for agriculture and food production. Such dichotomies have to be managed carefully and responsibly via sound and concurrent environmental rehabilitation management practices.


Globally, the extractive industries have come under the spotlight. As is well known, the G8 leaders are focusing on this sector, not only due to the issues of tax evasion, but also because of the broader factors that have turned the blessings of the natural resources to what is now referred to as “the resource curse”, a term subsuming the multi-faceted damage that the mineral endowment imposes on the political stability, ethical integrity, and social coherence of the societies and communities that are rich in natural resources. How very ironic that the very resources that should and could be used to initiate and accelerate socio-economic development, turn out to be a curse of environmental and socio-political instability. Surely, this is time to break with the past and reverse the patterns of historic instability in this sector into a framework for a coherent and integrated developmental process.


Getting the developmental policy and operations right is not an academic goal or a theoretical nicety for Africa. Rather it is a matter of “development” or “no development” for many of regions, communities and countries.