Miners have reason to be angry © AP
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When I first went to South Africa as a callow correspondent in the last year of white rule, veteran colleagues said that of the reams of agonised apartheid literature there were just two books I needed to read: Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country and Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart. For the first time in many years I have found myself thinking of both books as the stark images from South Africa’s Lonmin mine massacre have played on television screens around the world.

My 1993 reading list spoke more to the preoccupations of western editors than to the travails of the Rainbow Nation. The first encapsulates the dilemmas and uncertainties of the white liberal. The second is a no-holds-barred, to be read with several glasses of brandy and coke, evisceration of Afrikaner angst and the country’s tortured racial politics. But both books have searing passages that remind the reader how the tortured narrative of South Africa over the past 140 years is woven around the saga of the excavation of some of the more lucrative – and inaccessible – mining seams in the world: first diamond, then gold and now increasingly platinum. The resilience of apartheid was founded on the gold mined each year from the Witwatersrand. It was also, as Paton and Malan show in very different ways, based on the labour of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. The former addresses the nightmarish world of these young men separated from their families, living in fetid single-sex hostels. The latter recounts the murder of two policemen by striking miners whipped up by witch doctors and the frustrations of years.

If they read this far, old friends in the ANC will be clicking their teeth. One of the lazier syndromes in the international media of recent years has been the way that every political, social or economic drama of the post-apartheid era, from the rise of the firebrand Julius Malema to the fluctuations of the rand, has been presented abroad as an existential crisis. So, the sort of conflict of interest that in, say, India or Brazil is seen as irksome but not disastrous, is in the South African context routinely depicted as a step on the road to Zimbabwe. How many reports in the British press of gruesome murders in Johannesburg have had “Cry the beloved country” in the headline?

Investors wondering what to make of the Lonmin tragedy should of course ignore the apocalyptic tone of some of the commentary. While the mining industry is indeed in trouble there is no reason to suppose that outside appetite for South African bonds will wane. Those looking for context would do better, say, to read the obituaries in the past week of Heidi Holland, an old friend and for many years a central figure in Joburg’s rambunctious journalist circle. She had no truck with the blinkered pessimism it is all too easy to succumb to when looking on from afar. Yet she was also no patsy for ANC guff or misrule – and there is far too much of both.

Heidi would have understood that while many of the problems in the mines and in South Africa as a whole are rooted in the past, there are clear lessons to draw from this crisis that, if heeded, would lead to a more stable environment for investors, mine owners and miners.

First, to return to a running theme in the pages of Paton and Malan, all vestiges of the single-sex hostels should be ended. Some mines have moved in this direction but many haven’t. This will be expensive but it will be a vital conciliatory move. In return, the ANC has to accept that mining is not nearly as profitable as it used to be. Output volumes are flat, costs are rising and margins squeezed. If the proposed higher salaries were instituted, many more jobs would be lost.

So, the government must move to stop the crisis spreading and the planned inquiry must be swift and trenchant, not least to wrong-foot the radicals. The workers have reason to be angry: the ANC’s record in transforming public services is parlous. If the unrest spreads to other mining sectors, investor confidence would plunge.

To expect strong leadership from Jacob Zuma ahead of December’s party leadership contest is optimistic. His ANC and indeed its old ally, the main mining union, such a radical force in Malan’s pages, have become complacent in power. This should be a wake-up call for the stalwarts in the ANC to speak out at the cronyism and drift. I suspect they won’t and anticipate more apocalyptic headlines in the months ahead. But it is the spirit of Heidi that should guide our judgment.

alec.russell@ft.com

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