Picture: Phill Magakoe.

South Africa's mining-related unrest has a kind of pre-revolutionary feel.

The poor have gained little in 18 years of democracy.

The gulf with the rich is huge, growth isn't what it could be, and the African National Congress leadership is complacent.

It's no surprise that as, say, in pre-1917 Russia, militant opposition is rising.

The shooting of 34 striking miners by police last week may also betray nervousness in the corridors of power.

South Africa's Gini coefficient, a measure of income disparity, was 0.63 in 2009, among the highest recorded by the World Bank anywhere - compare with, say, roughly 0.5 in Portugal or the United States.

Even back in 1993, when institutionalised racism kept most whites rich and blacks poor, the number wasn't quite that high.

Nowadays, the ANC elites, many of whom have business interests, are among the country's wealthiest people.

With unemployment stubbornly high at 25 percent, it's little wonder if there's rising disillusionment. Yet that would be less worrisome if the economy as a whole were on a roll. But in spite of high commodity prices, South Africa's GDP growth was just 2.1 percent year-on-year in the first quarter. With annual population growth of 1.5 percent, according to the World Bank, that suggests little improvement per capita.

Mining jobs bring decent wages by South African standards. But the communities around mines have attracted shantytowns full of the impoverished, and miners now seem to be organising protests outside official union structures. Politically, mine nationalisation is a live topic even though the ANC recently rejected steps in that direction. Julius Malema, then leader of the ANC's youth arm but since expelled from the party, started a campaign for government takeovers in 2010 and has been active in the recent disputes.

Any support for nationalisation might be born of frustration rather than reason. But the ANC has its work cut out to maintain stability. Inequality, memories of oppression, and entrenched political power make for a combination that has brought upheaval before. If ANC bigwigs seem a bit like modern-day czars, then militant workers' groups, allied to a revolutionary opposition, somewhat resemble the Petrograd Workers Soviet.

South Africa has achieved mostly nonviolent change before. But its leaders, from President Jacob Zuma down, need to keep in mind that growth, jobs and improved living standards for the poor are the best ways to head off any danger.


- South African police shot at and killed 34 striking miners on August 16. President Jacob Zuma visited the striking miners on August 22. Julius Malema, the expelled youth leader of the African National Congress who has called for mine nationalisation, was enthusiastically received by striking Lonmin miners at a rally on August 18.

- The country's annual population growth is currently 1.5 percent, according to the World Bank.

- South Africa ranks 64th on Transparency International's corruption perceptions index, 70th on the Heritage Foundation's index of economic freedom, and 35th on the World Bank's ease of doing business index. Its Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, was 0.63 in 2009, according to the World Bank, among the world's highest. - Reuters