But this week's Lonmin incident is more complicated than that, and it reveals challenges to the ANC government and its ability to speak on behalf of South Africa's impoverished black majority.
The trouble at the Lonmin platinum mine in the northwest province town of Marikana began more than a week ago, when organizers for a small split-away union called for a strike in search of higher wages and better working conditions. Organizers for the more radical Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union argue that the more established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has failed to protect the interests of workers, and that a more confrontational approach should be taken.
It's a message that resonates strongly in a country with an official 25 percent unemployment rate, but where unofficial jobless rates may be much higher, particularly among young black men. While the frustration of poor South Africans has yet to threaten the power of the powerful ANC – which counts the NUM's parent union, the Congress of South African Trades Unions, as a ruling coalition partner – violent street protests are common in South African informal settlements and townships, where access to clean drinking water, sewage service, electricity, and health care remains a problem, 18 years after the ANC came to power.
Such protests don't automatically translate into support for the anti-ANC opposition, because the strongest of the non-ANC parties are seen by black voters as past supporters of the apartheid regime. The Democratic Alliance (DA), which includes black and mixed-race members in its top leadership, many of whom were vocal opponents of apartheid, has positioned itself as a right-of-center, pro-business party, and has struggled to win support among poorer voters.