Poor governance plagues African miners

I know I should focus on the election, hourly poll updates, sound bytes and other important pieces of news. That’s why I’m watching South Africa so closely.

On Aug. 10 at a platinum mine in South Africa, miners went on strike to protest for a wage increase of $1,500 a month. Police were sent to keep the situation in control. To no one’s surprise, tension erupted.

Some of the protesters were armed with machetes and guns and, when ordered to give up their weapons, shots were fired. No one is completely sure who went first, but it quickly escalated.

On Aug. 16, police fired into the crowd, killing 34 strikers. It was the worst police violence since apartheid and is unacceptable in what is often touted as a shining example for Africa.

Now, however, things have gotten really interesting. 270 strikers have been arrested for the murder of their fellow protesters on grounds that they incited the violence. For now, no police have faced charges, but officials say an internal investigation is pending.

The disgusting legal system that allows this situation to arise is telling of a larger trend in Africa. To the miners, oilmen, and resource gatherers on the continent, the biggest problem remains poor governance.

Over the past few years with rising demand from China and elsewhere, and a shaky global economy, commodity values have soared. The workers should justifiably see a rise in wages and government services, but this is still rarely the case.

Corruption and pocket lining still reign in Africa, where it is all too easy for local officials to demand bribes as part of the business process to major multinational corporations. Even worse are the nationalized companies that don’t have to report any of their internal transactions, as they are their own highest jurisdiction. There is little oversight over where the treasures are spent, and when they are used for the public, poor decision-making often leads the way.

But, things are getting better. The Securities and Exchange Commission and European Union are talking about making corporations listed on their stock exchanges to go public with foreign payments in order to uncover bribery. China, portraying itself as benevolent investor, would likely follow suit. It will still be hard to fix an entire continental system where all officials are suspicious of getting personal benefits.

Here in the U.S., it is hard to remember the importance of the labor movement. We celebrate Labor Day and the fact that children don’t sweep chimneys, but the fights unions fought are distant from day-to-day life. We can often get transfixed by the “important news” that is so pressing it has to be updated and forgotten regularly. Yet around the world, people still struggle and die for the fair value of their work.

Louis Brandeis once said that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” If that is the case, African governments need to conduct a better and brighter form of business, or the only business at hand will continue to be when to bury the dead and convict the living.

Patrick Quinlan is a freshman majoring in international studies and political science. 

September 23, 2012


Patrick Quinlan

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