The Freedom Park housing settlement sprawls across a barren, windswept plain on the outskirts of Rustenburg, South Africa, about one hundred miles northwest of Johannesburg. When I arrived there around noon on a searingly hot day in late February, at least ten thousand people had gathered in a dusty field sandwiched between clusters of zinc-walled, tin-roofed bungalows. They had come to hear an address by Julius Malema, the recently ousted president of the African National Congress Youth League, and one of South Africa’s most incendiary politicians.
I crossed a set of railroad tracks and pushed through rows of spectators, many of whom held umbrellas against the sun, and worked my way to a platform, where Malema was about to speak. Beyond the field I could see a pair of huge metal frames that reminded me of Coney Island roller coasters: these, I was told, were support structures for trolleys that carried men deep into the shafts of the Impala Platinum Mine, one of the largest employers in this part of the country.
For the past five weeks, 17,000 rock drillers, many employed by the mine, had been on strike here, demanding higher wages and safer working conditions. In recent days the atmosphere had gotten ugly: a judge had ruled the strike illegal, and Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd., the South African company that owned the mine, had fired the strikers. Three men had been beaten and stabbed to death for attempting to cross the picket lines. With no end in sight, Malema had come to Freedom Park to rally the striking miners, and—it was widely assumed—to gather grassroots support in an increasingly bitter confrontation with the leadership of the ANC, including South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma.
Malema, a pudgy, baby-faced man of thirty-one, stood at the edge of the platform: he wore a black beret tipped at a jaunty angle and a black T-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of one of his heroes, Chris Hani, the chief of the apartheid-era ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, who was assassinated by a white supremacist in April 1993. He was surrounded by cadres from the Youth League, all similarly dressed, and by local leaders, including the Northwest Province premier and deputy secretary-general of the ANC, a stout woman named Thandi Modise. Dozens of police in riot gear flanked the stage, backed up by armored vehicles and paddy wagons. As is always the case when Malema addresses a crowd, the security forces were braced for trouble.
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