The key point to grasp about the Marikana shootings (we're not allowed to call them a massacre because that makes them sound like the bad old days of Sharpeville) is that the National Union of Mineworkers, South Africa's biggest union, is in apparently terminal decline and has been losing control of one pit after another to its new rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has no political affiliations. The NUM is the spinal chord of the ANC alliance. Its leaders are always Communist Party members, it has provided the last three secretaries-general of the ANC in succession, and it is the dominant presence in the labour federation, Cosatu. The decline of the NUM threatens the whole structure of ANC power.
This is why the police – who are effectively an arm of the ANC – drew a line in the sand at Marikana. Three thousand workers had been camping out in protest for six days and the NUM leader could only address them from the safety of a police armoured car; the AMCU leaders were cheered by the strikers. The police announced on Thursday morning that come hell or high water they were going to end the protest that day and they arrived prepared for war in steel helmets and bullet-proof vests, armed with semi-automatic weapons. The AMCU leader, Joseph Mathunjwa, had talked to the police and knew what was going to happen. 'The writing is on the wall, they are going to kill you,' he told the strikers, pleading with them to leave. They wouldn't listen.
Immediately after the shootings there was a typical ANC black-out. For 24 hours no information was released and no one was allowed anywhere near the hospitals or hostels where the wounded and surviving strikers were, while the ANC decided on its line. 'Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination,' President Zuma said on Friday. 'Today challenges us to restore calm and to share the pain of the affected families and communities.' This is an awkward straddle because there are really only two alternatives. If you condemn the police then you are effectively saying that they and the ANC behind them are a lot of murderers. On the other hand, if you support the police action you are effectively saying that some of your countrymen deserved to be shot. The commission of inquiry now being set up will doubtless find a way to avoid expressing either view, however. It is also more than probable that the entire labour force at the mine will be sacked and a new NUM-disciplined workforce recruited in its place.
But that won't save the ANC. In exile, the ANC could surmount any crisis merely by iron discipline. In 1968 they supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the line was enforced and that was that. But those days are gone and such tactics will not contain the shockwaves from the massacre at Marikana. Ultimately, it is bad news for Zuma, as it will strengthen the views of those in the ANC who feel he is a hopelessly incompetent blunderer – but he may still have the votes to prevail.
The decay of the ANC alliance is now far advanced and irreversible. South Africa is anyway a very difficult country to govern, and as the ANC gradually falls apart the process is likely to be a violent one, like an old volcano blowing itself to bits.