Global Ethics Corner: South Africa: The Impossible Dream?

Sep 7, 2012

It's been about 20 years since South Africa emerged from apartheid, but a recent series of violent confrontations between police and striking mine workers have exposed the bitter divisions of the "rainbow nation." Can South Africa remain a peaceful and prosperous example for Africa?

Twenty years ago, South Africa was just emerging from apartheid, a brutal system of racial segregation. With Nelson Mandela as its democratically elected president, and a new constitution, the so-called "rainbow nation" seemed ready to bury its bleak history of violent oppression.

A modern, prosperous, and democratic South Africa seemed poised to lead the African continent into a new era. This wave of optimism crested in 2010 when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup. To many, it seemed that South Africa had finally shed the psychological burden of its grim past.

But a recent series of violent confrontations between the police and striking mine workers has exposed the bitter divisions below the surface of South African society.

South Africa has been a leading supplier of precious metals and diamonds since the mid-19th century. But nearly two-thirds of South Africans remain mired in poverty. According to official government data, about a third of South Africans are unemployed. Unofficial estimates are often much higher.

This has led to increasingly violent social unrest. On August 16, a clash outside of a platinum mine resulted in the deaths of 36 miners at the hands of heavily armed police. Two hundred-and-seventy of the protesting miners were subsequently charged with murder, a charge which was overturned by a judge.

President Jacob Zuma, a favorite of the nation's powerful coalition of trade unions, now finds himself trying to mediate a conflict between the white-owned mining industry, the largely white police force, and a South African public that is 80 percent black and has a long memory of the power of the state being used against the people.

What do you think? Can South Africa remain a peaceful and prosperous example for the rest of Africa? Or were the post-racial dreams of the 1990s a false promise?

For more information see

Andres R. Martinez and Jaco Visser, "South Africa Mine Deaths Show Wealth Gap Inciting Tension," Business Week, September 4, 2012

Lydia Polgreen, "South Africa: Striking Miners Hurt in Clash With Police," The New York Times, September 3, 2012

Lorraine Kearney, "Mining and minerals in South Africa,", August 8, 2012

"South Africa’s FIFA World Cup—a success at home and abroad,", September 23, 2010

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:
United Nations Photo [also for pictures 2, 3, 4, 12, 14, 17, 19, & 20]
World Trade Organization
Celso Flores [also for picture 7]
ER24 EMS (Pty) Ltd.
Zadi Diaz
Library of Congress
Janah Hattingh
Liane Greef
Stewart Harris
Taryn Nefdt

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