JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A storm of violent wildcat strikes in South Africa’s mines has eased, leaving President Jacob Zuma battered but defiant, and buoying his chances of heading off rivals to win a party leadership election in December.
With most strikers in gold and platinum mines returning to work after threats of dismissal and some sweeteners on pay, the 70-year-old head of state appears to be weathering the biggest threat so far to his plans to stay on as leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
In the worst mining violence since the apartheid era, at least 50 people have died over several months; it has dented investor confidence in Zuma’s handling of Africa’s largest economy and led to downgrades of its sovereign credit ratings.
Zuma’s populist image has also been tarnished by the killing by police of 34 strikers at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in August, the bloodiest security incident since white-minority rule ended in 1994. His government has faced fierce criticism that its response was slow and insensitive.
But in a country where ANC dominance of the political system counts for as much as superficial popularity, the overall waning of the strikes has given Zuma political room to marshal the support he needs to carry the internal election in December - despite a lingering threat rivals might join forces to oust him.
“The sentiment seems to be coalescing around Zuma’s re-election bid, with it appearing for now that the worst is over for the strikes,” independent political analyst Nic Borain said.
“But this does not address the fundamental issues that have changed as a result of the strikes: that a mass, African, working-class constituency has emerged in our politics that is potentially hostile to the ANC and its alliance partners.”
Although gold miners have returned to work, some strikers at world No. 1 platinum producer Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) are still refusing to go back to work, despite a company offer to reinstate them. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at striking Amplats miners on Tuesday, in a sign that industrial calm is not yet fully restored.
Zuma was in defensive but confident form when he met foreign reporters, giving them a rare briefing on Monday in which he rebuffed suggestions by his own deputy that the Marikana events and ensuing strikes were a national “tipping point”.
“South Africa is not at a tipping point,” he said. “I think South Africa is on the move, moving forward.
“Strikes in a democracy are a common occurrence,” he added. “It’s way too exaggerated to say that because there are strikes, South Africa is in a big crisis.”
He chastised the media for rushing to identify splits and divisions in the ANC, saying its leadership process was a part of South Africa’s democracy and was following its normal course.
No challenger has yet declared for a vote to be held among 4,500 delegates meeting on December 16-20 at Mangaung, though it will be at least another month before the nominees are decided.
But Zuma, who unseated then president Thabo Mbeki in a bitter battle for the ANC leadership in 2007, seems already to have locked up the necessary support at provincial branch level.
“(This) appears to mean he’s pretty impregnable ... and this is despite him handling Marikana politically in an appalling way,” said John Campbell at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “He has every reason to be confident,” added Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
Retaining the ANC leadership would put Zuma in line to win a second five-year term as national president in 2014.
However, he cannot rule out surprises. One senior member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, who professed support for Zuma, told Reuters privately that a “succession battle” was still being waged and was “tearing the organization apart”.
ANC insiders say there is a substantial “anyone but Zuma” camp willing to throw its weight behind any possible challenger - notably enigmatic deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.
Motlanthe, 63, who served briefly as South African president after the ANC ejected Mbeki in 2008, has kept his plans close to his chest, letting others campaign on his behalf. He might play safer and seek a deal to remain Zuma’s No. 2 in order to position himself for a future shot at the presidency.
Zuma, Motlanthe and others have acknowledged that the 100-year-old party of Nelson Mandela, which came to power in 1994 promising “a better life for all”, needs to perform better.
“The government has to change the way it works,” Zuma told the foreign correspondents, even as he insisted the ANC had made great strides in providing houses, water and electricity for millions, and curbing one of the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rates.
The president said it was the “sins of the oppressors” - colonialism and apartheid - that were holding back progress.
As a politically connected business elite and swelling middle class prosper, South Africa’s income inequality is rated one of the worst in the world and has become more acute.
Nearly two in five of the 52 million South Africans live on less than $3 a day and for many the mines unrest is emblematic of growing discontent with the ANC’s stewardship of the economy.
Ratings agencies recommend fixing a broken education system and reforming a labor market that has hurt competitiveness.
Political analyst Borain said Zuma’s consensual style had helped him secure his base within the party but now made him vulnerable to accusations of weak and vacillating leadership:
“The very good quality of being more of a compromiser and an alliance builder also brings out his worst quality,” he said, “Which is indecisiveness and the party paralysis that characterizes his government.”
Additional reporting by Peroshni Govender and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Alastair Macdonald