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October 2012, Volume 19, Number 4

South Africa: Labor

The World Bank, in a July 2012 report, concluded that social mobility for many Africans is limited by poor schools and too few jobs. The inability of the African National Congress-dominated government to reduce inequality has generated calls for radical policies, from nationalizing mines to seizing farmland.

Dozens of striking miners were killed in protests at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine in August 2012. There are about 500,000 employees in mining in South Africa, which accounts for seven percent of South Africa's GDP. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, mining firms have reduced their employment of migrant workers from neighboring countries and mechanized; most of the remaining mine workers are South Africans.

Rock drillers went on strike at Marikana in support of a demand for a R12,500 ($1,500) monthly wage. There is competition between the established National Union of Mineworkers and the more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union for the loyalty of miners, and the strike quickly became a contest between the two unions.

Lonmin and many other mines provide housing, but they also offer so-called "living out" allowances of about $225 a month to miners who elect not to live in company-provided housing. Some of the strikers were living out in informal settlements that offer few amenities.

Strikes by miners and truck drivers are threatening economic growth in Africa's largest economy, while divisions within the ruling African National Congress block a firm response. The peaceful 1994 transition from apartheid to democracy led to Black-majority government with whites in control of the economy. Slow upward mobility for the masses since then, combined with a growing sense that the ANC and associated Black elite are looking out for themselves rather than the greater good, have reduced hopes for systemic upward mobility.

The ANC-led government has since 1994 built 2.5 million houses and now provides small monthly payments to 15 million South Africans. However, schools in many Black areas are poor, and a strong teachers union blocks reforms that could improve them.