13/09/2012 08:23 BST | Updated 13/09/2012 08:23 BST

ANC: End of the Party?

The cracks in the dusty earth at the Marikana mine have come to represent so much more. They have come to symbolise not only the cracks in the ANC, but in South Africa itself.

The decision to charge and then release 270 miners with murder was firstly, ridiculous. No one having seen the footage of the police opening fire that has been aired on practically every TV news channel would even entertain the notion that the 34 deaths on the 16th August were exclusively caused by the miners. The fact that the charges were so ludicrous only helps to highlight one thing; South Africa is slowly being strangled by corruption in near every walk of life.

Moving away from the actual charges for a moment, let us examine the South African Police Services (SAPS) and how they came to open fire on the miners. Whilst the miners were armed with spears, knobkerries and petrol bombs, anyone who has seen the aforementioned video will see that the response by the police was grossly excessive. Further, there have been reports that the police continued to chase down fleeing miners and then gunned them down in cold blood. This theory may have gained weight with the discovery that several minors were shot in the back i.e. whilst fleeing. It is one thing to use force to disperse an armed crowd but, if true, then it becomes murder. This though is not an isolated incident; the trigger happy nature of the police is well documented.

This behaviour has been almost encouraged with the recent dilution of the criminal procedures laws laid down by the constitution. The changes to Section 49 of the constitution reduces the amount of provocation SAPS need to use lethal force i.e. the presence of a weapon is not needed, only the suspicion that the suspect may be armed. In respect to the environment that SAPS operates in, this is in direct response to widespread, often well organised and well armed criminal elements that routinely use deadly force themselves. Think Africa Press reported that 1,130 police officers were killed in the last decade alone. The alterations to Section 49 seem to be justifiable in response to such opposition, but the sheer number of fatal police shootings seems to suggest this power is vastly overused. When we combine this with routine reports of beatings and even torture during custody (which some miners claimed they were subject to), we can begin to see why there is a growing public distrust of SAPS.

This was further exacerbated by the shootings, but was preceded by many high profile cases of police corruption, such as Jackie Selebi, the former police chief now severing 15 years for corruption. This, coupled with the existence of so called unofficial "death squads" where units carried out targeted assassination, such as the "Cato Manor" unit discovered in KwaZulu Natal. It should be noted that not all these death squads targeted gangsters: sometimes they were employed by the gangsters themselves to eliminate competitors. No wonder this has lead to vigilante groups appearing across the country, often employing the same or perhaps greater levels of violence. For example, a common practice of these groups is "necklacing" where a suspect is immolated by being burnt alive by having a petrol filled tyre placed around them and ignited. This is made worse by the fact the often public burnings are decided by a kangaroo court, meaning these victims never had a fair or proper trial.

To put the scale of the corruption in context, The Economist reports 5,869 formal complaints were made against the police in 2011. 566 South Africans were killed by police in 2009-10, according to official statistics; another 294 whilst in custody. As anyone who has watched The Wire knows all too well, statistics can be misleading and deliberately understated. To this end, impartial commentators such as Transparency International found 68% of respondents to their survivor described SAPS as "extremely corrupt". This extends even to traffic police, where another survey found half of South Africa's motorists had been asked for a bribe.

Low level corruption such as the traffic police is symptomatic of a larger cancer infecting the lives of every South African. At the top level, the political parties must get into bed with trade unions, which hold a much greater deal of direct political power than found in most countries. For example, the power of the ruling ANC party depends of the Tripartite Alliance, a historical alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU), which is affiliated with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Whilst both COSATU and the SACP are not political parties, they both field candidates within the ANC, many in senior positions and well placed to wield power and influence on the ANC. A good example of this was highlighted by the BBC who noted that the NUM founder Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also a member of the ANC's leadership body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), sits on the Lonmin board. I am not accusing Ramaphosa of corruption (he rescinded his NUM membership before joining the ANC) but merely highlighting the crosspollination between the groups.

Further, the NUM owns the Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC), a vehicle that the NUM use to own stock and shares in the very companies they are meant to be impartial to. To put this in context, this is much like USDAW owning 30% of Tesco which would be morally and ethically suspect in the least. Despite this, the MIC continues to invest in the companies those staff they are meant to represent. The perception is that this has led to those at the top of unions earning a small fortune, whilst their members still suffer appalling wages and working conditions. This is where the AMCU (Associated Miners and Construction Union) has come to become a major thorn in COSATU's side.

AMCU is a relatively new union, and is still small, at roughly a fifth of NUMs size. Yet it has made rapid progress due to widespread disenfranchisement with COSATU and NUM actions and leadership. This is well exemplified by it becoming the majority union at the Karee mine after NUM's failed response to recent strikes there. It should be highlighted that the AMCU prides itself on not being NUM or COSATU affiliated, and as a result can more closely represent the needs of their members. Whilst this is debatable, with reports in the Mail and Guardian, the NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni's total salary package is more than R 100,000 (approximately £7,600) a month, it suddenly seems an attractive alternative to a miner struggling to scrape together an existence for what is exceptionally hard and dangerous work. The strikers at Marikana were merely asking for a raise to R 12,500 a month, approximately £950.

Notably, both Karee and Marikana are owned and operated by the same company, Lonmin. After their success at Karee, the AMCU hope that the events at Marikana will swell their ranks even further. This has been championed by former ANC Youth League Leader and firebrand Julius Malema. After being acrimoniously thrown out of the ANC for expressing views contra to the ANC (namely calling for an overthrow of the Botswana Democratic Party, amongst other charges) but possibly due to the fact that he represent a direct challenge to Jacob Zuma, of whom he is openly critical of. By latching on to the anger of disenfranchised miners and of poor black South Africans he is hoping to rebuild a badly damaged political career by not seeking to return to the fold of the ANC but simply to undermine it. By encouraging AMCU membership, or even no union membership, it severely affects both the power and income of COSATU who have been supporters of Zuma. This is particularly important at the Marikana mine, as South Africa produces some 80% of the world's platinum. Control the production of this, and the AMCU could wield massive influence both domestically and globally. Without a strong union to support the ANC, the party may find itself soon having to concede some power to opponents, and may even find itself out of power for the first time since the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. This may explain why Zuma was so unwilling to interfere in the arrests of the miners, possibly to send a definite message to both Malema and the AMCU in a display of power. It may even explain the charges to begin with.

It is doubtful that Malema will find himself part of any party taking the void left by the ANC. He is simply too divisive. He has a hardcore of poor, black and largely uneducated youths as seen at the strikes he attends, but his history will not sway a large enough vote. He is notorious for singing "shoot the Boer" (a derogatory term for a white person), supporting Robert Mugabe and calling for South Africa's farms to be nationalised in a worrying imitation of policy in Zimbabwe of forcing predominately white farmers off their land. In short, very few if any white South Africans would vote for him, and he has gained condemnation from Black and Indian South Africans of note as well. With the strikes providing continuing oxygen and exposure for his views, he could well reopen the wounds of Apartheid and create racial conflict. There is a clear need for debate on why so many black South African remain in poverty and many others remain isolated from gaining such basics as respectable employment and education, but Malema could reset this debate back even further, despite his intentions to promote black empowerment. Instead, by reducing or even removing the corruption endemic in South Africa, we stand a much greater chance of creating a South Africa where all are treated equally.

If the massive overspending and corrupt practice of offering public contracts to a very small pool of contractors with political connections can be brought into line, then South Africa could be a very different place. The New York Times reports that Limpopo Province alone had 2,400 more teachers on its payroll beyond its budget, 200 of these were "ghosts" i.e. they did not exist, yet they somehow took a salary. The same article notes how corruption has left townships without water or electricity. If this could be brought under control, then perhaps many more could attend school or earn an existence as farmers. When corruption affects people on a daily basis like this, it is easy to see how many have grown detached from the ANC.

This could be a perfect storm for the ANC. With infighting and the public tête-à-tête between Malema and Zuma, the corruption and the fallout from the shootings and wildcat strikes, the outlook for the 2014 elections looks bleak. This comes as Zuma still cannot shake off allegations he took bribes for an arms deal even after his close association with Schabir Shaik, a businessman currently serving 15 years on the same charge. Lastly, the infighting of the ANC was public exposed last year when the patriarch of the party, Nelson Mandela openly criticised a bill that would have massively impinged on the ability of the media to air or publish any item critical of the ANC. The bill itself left a sour taste in the mouth of many voters, but the public disapproval from the likes of Mandela and Desmond Tutu only served to further undermine Zuma.

When this is combined with the possible merger of the Democratic Alliance and Independent Democrats to create a real opposition and the fact that many first time voters have not experienced Apartheid and thus have fewer historical ties with the ANC, then real change could be afoot. I shy away from stating as some have that this is the start of the "African Spring" but the ANC could well find itself losing influence over the next two years. It may not be enough to place a new party in power, or even remove Zuma as ANC's figurehead, but I will be amazed if they maintain as large as a majority as they enjoy now come 2014. Whether this helps alleviate corruption is to be seen, it may be that just that the new faces outside the ANC are just as corrupt. Irrespective, for the ANC, the party may be over.