Pop Goes the Weasel

Pop Goes the Weasel

The horrible killing of South African miners yesterday is less news than analysis of not just South Africa’s political legacy, but the whole wide world’s.

Police conceded that at least 34 admittedly aggressive strikers at a platinum mine in the north of the country were killed when things got out of control. The number is probably higher.

While the protest was ostensibly over wages, the weeks leading to the outburst were more of a battle between two labor organizations, the official union for the mine and a renegade self-styled militant union that is passionately communist.

I use that term with caution but deliberately. Communism in a truer and less autocratic way than adopted by the Soviet Union, for example, has been a significant part of South African politics for more than a century. Its leaders would be considered moderate by the style of historic European communism, more like American communists in the 1920s.

But lately South Africa – and the world – have taken significant right turns, becoming more conservative socially and fiscally. And in many places in the world, such as the U.S. under Bush and a number of European nations under current conservative leadership, it’s been downright dictatorial.

It never seems that way at the time. When America invaded Iraq, my own liberal heroes were behind the invasion. But with time history is revealing what a small number of men, motivated not by facts but ideology, actually made the decision.

It was affirmed by a greater segment of society, but the die had been cast. Society as a whole had neither the guts or power to oppose it. Even our “progressive leaders,” or in the case of South Africa, union leaders appear to capitulate to the rightist dogma.

In South Africa, the mining weasel popped. And it wasn’t pretty Thursday.

Earlier this year South Africa almost nationalized the mines. That, too, is a perennial topic it seems in South Africa, but this time they got closer than ever to doing it, and in fact the renegades have expressly said they hope this violence will make the country revisit the issue.

Nationalization would be a thunderclap in the world. Even as a diehard liberal I think it would be far too serious a jolt. This is because South Africa’s reservoir of gold and other precious minerals is too large. In one fell swoop it would alter the way energy is consumed in the world. Moreover, in South Africa it would empower a currently corrupt political leadership that could be spun out of control with their dizzying new responsibilities.

But nationalization was a real topic because blue collar workers are being shafted, just as they are in the United States, and as they are most of all in places like China. It’s a very hard argument to make, because workers are better off, today, in South Africa and China than they were two decades ago.

At the expense, I might add, of American workers.

But without the long analysis needed (read Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites) the point is not so much that workers are being shafted, but that the capitalistic balloon is busting.

The right side of the balloon is the rich owners radically pulling their salaries and dividends even more to the right. But it can’t be pulled that way without pulling the left side an equal distance “shafting” the poor.

We guys in the middle just tread water and wait for the pop.

South African mine workers aren’t, really, too off-center compared to where they were a decade ago, or compared to many other workers in South Africa, today. But from their central location they see their families over there in the poor left being vastly distanced by the owners and stakeholders getting fabulously rich by the platinum they are pulling out with their hands.

New York Times reporter, Lydia Polgreen, nailed it: “The shooting left a field strewed with bodies and a deepening fault line between the governing African National Congress and a nation that, 18 years after the end of apartheid, is increasingly impatient with deep poverty, rampant unemployment and yawning inequality.”

This is ripe stuff for an explosion. Particularly in a society where workers – especially miners – have a history of activism. It isn’t just that they want higher wages, they’ve actually seen their own country’s politics radically moved by their activism.

The violent confrontation, of course, does not make South Africa’s poor richer. But it did make the rich more poor.

So this isn’t the end of it, folks. Where unions still have some power, like South Africa, there’s going to be more and more labor unrest. Relatively rich countries like South Africa will either ultimately nationalize giant industries like mining, or the global capitalistic gyroscope will reset somehow, reversing the trend of the last half century. The richer will become poorer and the poor will become richer.

I vote for the latter. It will be much less violent.