Malema and the miners in South Africa

Eighteen years after apartheid, the hopes and dreams of the rainbow nation – South Africa – are coming apart at the seams. Mounting anger at the perceived enrichment of a small elite at the expense of the majority – especially the miners who extract South Africa’s most precious minerals – has exploded into a violent strike, now in its fifth week.

With the government of Jacob Zuma largely silent on this issue, activists are calling for a national mining strike.

Julius Malema, a former leader of the youth wing of the African National Congress political party, has become the face of the crisis.

Malema was expelled from the ANC for fomenting division within the party. He is now being investigated for corruption charges related to the misuse of party funds while he was in office.

He is a harsh critic of the Zuma government and the unrest has given him a window to step into the leadership void left by Zuma.

Malema is calling for a national strike in all of South Africa’s mines, but his critics see him as a rabble rouser and opportunist, using the miners to increase his profile.

In an interview Tuesday, Malema told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “We have now taken over the leadership of that struggle to make sure the mineral resources of this country benefit the people of this country. Particularly the workers who are working very hard in very risky conditions underground, trying to take out these precious minerals.”

When Amanpour pressed him on why was inserting himself into the strikes, he contended that he remains a leader of the ANC in spite of his expulsion.

“We continue to play that role to ensure that the working class in South Africa does not become leaderless because those who are charged with such a responsibility have taken leave from discharging such responsibility.”

WATCH: Life for a South African miner

The situation among the miners descended into chaos back on August 16, when 34 striking workers were killed by police at a platinum mine near Marikana, South Africa.

It became the most violent confrontation between police and civilians since the end of apartheid; and images of armed officers firing into the crowd played repeatedly in South Africa.

Now there are reports of striking miners threatening to kill those who do show up for work.

The state of affairs has placed a harsh light on the economic inequality that plagues South Africa. The World Bank says the country is second only to Namibia in inequality.

Nearly two decades after apartheid, the miners – virtually all black – are paid very little. They make about $400 USD a month and live in squalor – often without running water, electricity or proper toilets.

For now, the mining strikes appear to highlight the income gap, as well as a leadership gap in the Rainbow Nation.

One of the miners told CNN’s Nkepile Mabuse, “It seems as though the government has forgotten about us and is siding with the mining companies. Black people in South Africa are being used like toilet paper, and then flushed.”

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