It was a scene right out of a television newsreel of a quarter century ago - armed police firing into a crowd of strikers. Not tear gas, mind you, not even the rubber bullets made infamous by the British during three decades of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, but real bullets which ended up taking the lives of 44 people and wounding 78 others. The shooting took place last month at a platinum mine at Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg. For those of us who can remember, it took us right back to the bad old days of apartheid (white minority rule) which held sway in South Africa for half a century before it ended in ignominy 18 years ago. Only this time, it wasn't Afrikaner police who were firing, but black policemen aiming their weapons at black miners.
Miners who descend several kilometres into the ground each day were angry, not at white racists intent on keeping them at the bottom of the heap, but the small new black elite which has superseded them. This group has benefited enormously since the end of apartheid, but has failed to improve the lives of the majority with more jobs and improved services.
Unrest is spreading among the mines which furnish about one-fifth of South Africa's economy. The dissatisfied miners operate in unpleasant and often dangerous conditions. At the depths from which they extract valuable minerals, heat can reach unbearable levels, forcing the mine operators to shoot refrigerated air through the shafts and tunnels. The clouds of dust which emanate from the blasting also have to be fought off, usually using water, but lung diseases are widespread. Housing conditions can best be described as substandard. Thousands of men, many from neighbouring countries, are crammed into bare-bones barracks close to the mines and away from urban centres.
Mining has been one of the main factors in the development of South Africa into the most powerful economy on the continent. It began in 1867 when a 15-year-old farm boy named Erasmus Jacobs was helping his father clear a blocked water pipe on the Orange River near Hopetown. He went for a long stick to give his father and sat down to rest under a tree. He saw something glinting in the sunshine, picked it up and put it in his pocket. Young Erasmus played with the stone and his mother mentioned it to a neighbour who offered to buy it. She refused the money and the stone eventually landed before a noted mineralogist who pronounced it a diamond weighing more than 21 carats.
It became known as the Eureka stone and was bought by the governor of the Cape Colony, who took it back with him to England, where it remained for 100 years. The big diamond company De Beers bought the now cut and polished stone in 1967 and donated it to the South African people. It has since been on display at the Kimberley Mine Museum.
As the years passed prospectors grubbed away at the ground across the vast open stretches of the veld (grassland) which constitutes a large portion of the country. They found what they called Kimberlite pipes - columns of specialised rock plunging deep into the earth. These were formed from the molten lava known as magma which lies beneath the earth's crust. The enormous pressure from the crust forced the magma up through cracks and weak points, where they hardened as they got close to the surface. These structures usually contain high concentrations of diamonds and other gems.
All this prospecting led the explorers to discover other minerals without which our modern industrial society just wouldn't exist. In addition to the diamonds and gold for which South Africa is known, the country is the world's largest producer of platinum, chromium, manganese, vanadium and vermiculite. It is the second largest producer of ilmenite, palladium, rutile and zirconium, and is the third largest exporter of coal. In fact, South Africa produces more platinum and similar metals than any other country, accounting for more than three-quarters of the platinum and around two-fifths of the world's palladium. These two metals are used for jewellery and in electronics, but their main application nowadays is in catalytic converters on cars, allowing them to produce far less pollution than they otherwise would. Chromium is another strategic metal, used to make stainless steel and found in a wide range of industrial applications. A half-dozen years ago, South Africa was the world's only source of this metal.
The trouble is that while the mines made the small segment of white people extraordinarily rich, those riches were extracted from the ground at great human cost by black men, who constitute part of the largest racial group. Under apartheid, any manifestations of dissent or dissatisfaction were ruthlessly put down. Incidentally, many years ago when the word had come to the notice of the outside world, I worked at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation where an exiled South African writer called Peter Abrahams was a regular commentator and panel member. I asked him once what was the proper pronunciation for the word, to which he replied "Apart-hate is how you say it, and apart-hate is what it means". I have never forgotten that brief but very instructive lesson.
The unrest among miners began with a violent six-week strike at another platinum mine in January and intensified last month when workers at the Marikana refused to go into the shafts and staged demonstrations. That's when the police fired on the crowd and fanned the flames of unrest. Since then the unrest has grown and striking workers have presented their employers with demands for much higher pay. What began as an industrial dispute has turned into a grass-roots rebellion by black people who have seen little improvement in their lives since a black government came to power.
The unrest has brought considerable prominence to a renegade member of the ruling African National Congress, Julius Malema. The party expelled him a few months ago as its youth leader and he is dismissed by party bigwigs and leaders of the mineworkers' union as an opportunist. But for the legions of South Africa's impoverished black majority, Malema is becoming something of a star. Along with radical strike leaders, Malema has been addressing rallies to draw attention to the miners' demands, to call for a national strike and to attack the country's president, Jacob Zuma, for treating them as a low priority. The shootings and the failure of the government to resolve the unrest has also energised a campaign to unseat Zuma when the ANC chooses new officers in December.
Malema also attacks Zuma's polygamous lifestyle: "I don't know what is a priority for him, maybe getting married every year ... Here, children don't have books, people in hospitals don't have the necessary machines, they don't have roads or clean water."
Speaking on the radio a few days ago, Malema called for a mine change in South Africa: "Now we want to show them that we mean business. We are going to be engaging in very peaceful yet radical and militant action that will hit straight into the pockets of white minority capital."
Over the course of its stormy history, Africa has experienced much unrest. A lot more is in store.