Julius Malema is finally gone from the political scene in SA, and others are slipping into the political space he had occupied.
As the influence of the local branches of the African National Congress (ANC) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) wanes, new leaders are emerging. These leaders often have a more radical and less pragmatic approach, untempered by interests and considerations beyond the immediate, or fired up over wild ideological visions.
In the mines and on the farms we have seen examples. None has had the reach and popular pull of Mr Malema, who could set up a soapbox and pull a crowd in any informal settlement anywhere, but the roles they occupy and messages they give out are similar.
All tap into the sentiments that Mr Malema was the first to identify: the growing feeling of ordinary people that they are being cheated or short-changed in some way; and their waning hope that tomorrow will be better than today.
Joseph Mathunjwa, the leader of the Association of Mining and Construction Workers (Amcu), might not match up to Mr Malema’s big personality, and will likely never play in the same league, but he displays a similar political wiliness. Having survived expulsion from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he is now in the world of independent unionism and poised to become a real player in mining.
Relatively unsophisticated compared to the English articulateness and confidence of Cosatu leaders, Mathunjwa’s persona is one of a humble leader. Although a good speaker and capable of whipping up emotions, for the most part it has been his style to occupy the background. His approach has allowed a new crop of local leaders to come readily to the fore.
It is these local leaders, rather than the formal structures, that have tended to take the exercise of new-found power to extremes. Without the boundaries imposed by a formal structure such as the NUM, and lacking experience and knowledge, local leaders have been wreaking destruction.
At Harmony’s Kusasalethu mine, for example, production has become untenable due to the frequent strikes over arbitrary and subjective demands — like the firing of particular individuals or the rehiring of others — without legal or rational basis. While the NUM would have persuaded workers that this is a path of self-destruction, the Amcu style is to hang back, with the consequence that populism and anarchy flourish.
The farm strikes were marked by a similar emotionalism. In De Doorns, it was part-time evangelist, part-time unionist and part-time farmer Nosey Pieterse who came to the fore. Mr Pieterse, who did not initiate the strike but was among those first on the scene, took the emerging group of worker leaders under his wing, providing them with resources and drawing them into the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of SA, the union he had started in 2009.
He is a colourful character who dresses in a trademark dock workers’ cap with a large Christian cross hanging onto his belly. Oddly, he has played on both sides of the equation: he has been a manager for KWV and is a beneficiary of the company’s empowerment transaction. Yet also appears sincere in his attempts to advance the rights of farm workers through the trade union he founded.
Opinions on the role he played in the strike are mixed. While Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich insists that Mr Pieterse was "realistic and honest", other union voices disagree, arguing that Mr Pieterse "promised the world" to workers, and that the demand for R150 a day was never likely to be realised.
Other characters have also wandered across the scene. Among them is the Democratic Left — active in both Marikana and Carletonville — and the Democratic Socialist Movement. Led by Mametlwe Sebei, the latter was set up to mobilise mineworkers and poor communities into forming the Workers and Socialist Party.
Leaving aside the individuals involved, events on the mines and farms show that with the decline of ANC-aligned structures, the political space is quickly being opportunistically occupied.