10/02/2012 05:08 EDT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 EST

While Violent, Mining Strikes Aren't South Africa's Real Problem

Miners return to work at the Lonmin Platinum mine after Lonmin resolved a five-week strike by agreeing to pay raises of up to 22 percent, in Marikana, Rustenburg, South Africa, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

In August and September, a strike by South African platinum miners in the town of Marikana made international headlines after 46 people were killed. It came as no surprise, then, that news of an agreement reached between workers and Lonmin, the company which owns the platinum mines that were the focus of the work stoppage, was greeted with optimism in South Africa and internationally.

That was two weeks ago. Since then, workers at a mine owned by AngloGold Ashanti have been demanding increased pay on par with the 11-22 per cent raise (the amount given differs for particular jobs) achieved by the miners in Marikana. Other strike actions have been set in motion too, with police using rubber bullets to restore order and killing two protesters in the process.

The strikes are likely to continue now that the Marikana decision appears to have set a precedent. While important, it is likely that the continuing media attention is a result of the violence involved rather than a genuine interest in the finer points of the strikes -- including the fact that they are rooted in struggles that extend far beyond the economic realm, pitting the governing African National Congress (ANC) on the side of the status quo and its opponents on the side of radical change.

The result is not only a failure to understand the context of the issue but also the ignoring of other problems that are causing even greater hardship than the strikes -- threatening to provoke more unrest as a result.

In July, South Africa's Auditor-General released a report that found that only 13 out of 343 municipalities were able to generate clean audits in the fiscal year 2010-11. Because areas of vital concern fall under the jurisdiction of municipal governments -- water management, sewage treatment, housing, electricity and road maintenance -- the findings are especially worrying.

When the Apartheid era came to an end in 1994, many saw the reform of municipal government as a key way to attack lingering social divisions. Under Apartheid, cities were divided along racial lines, with Whites and non-Whites (Blacks, South Asians or "Indians" and "Coloureds" -- a term used to identify those with a mixed indigenous and European or South Asian ancestry) living in state-enforced segregated spaces. The White parts of the city received access to the best services while non-White areas were kept poor.

The sad reality is that although formal separation has come to an end, the everyday experience of most South Africans -- especially Blacks -- is rife with misery and unmet expectations. While the number of people accessing basic services such as water and electricity has increased since 1994, a wide expansion of service delivery has progressed at a snail's pace.

One of the major reasons for this lies in the way that the ANC -- which has ruled since Apartheid's end -- has used the municipalities to entrench its power. The Auditor-General's report took care to highlight the fact that many municipal employees serve no real function and have simply been appointed because of their ties to the ANC.

The result is that most of those holding key positions in local government, especially those in charge of managing finances, are not equipped with the knowledge to carry out their duties. On top of this, in 45 per cent of the municipalities audited, contracts for development projects were handed out not on an open and competitive basis but to municipal employees, local councillors and state officials.

More than a problem of corruption, these problems are the result of patronage. In its most basic form, patronage refers to a relationship between two or more people in which benefits -- money, power, and influence -- are granted for mutual advantage. In some cases, those involved are of unequal status, but not always. What is more certain is that each has something the other needs and this is what brings them together.

In the political realm, the story is a familiar one, and not only in the developing world. Those seeking to achieve or maintain power certainly attract potential supporters with crafty ads and captivating speeches but they also promise favours. In states where democracy has strong roots or has functioned for a lengthy period, a wide array of measures including whistle-blowing legislation, audits, conflict of interest laws and provisions governing political donations can help guard against the dangers of patronage by encouraging transparency and accountability.

But when democracy is still in its infant stages, the situation is radically different. At this point, political parties also use patronage for the familiar reasons but its effects go unprotected. The reason has nothing to do with some kind of inherent backwardness -- a view that continues to underpin popular perceptions of corruption in the developing world. Instead, protections that can help overcome or at least control patronage's effects have not had time to develop.

This is what lies behind the problems faced by South African municipalities. Because patronage has been in use from the beginning of the ANC's reign -- and during Apartheid -- the population has come to accept it and even rely on it as a way of protecting their interests and pushing the government to recognize their demands. They have done so, in part, by organizing service delivery protests that have been common over the past decade. In response, the ANC has used patronage to quell this anger.

The bubble, however, is bound to break at some point. When it does, and if service delivery has not improved, the violence of the mining strikes could be repeated on a much wider and more devastating scale.

Peter Fragiskatos holds a PhD in International Relations from Cambridge University and teaches at Western University in London, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @pfragiskatos