Apocalypse South Africa: rumours of Armageddon greatly exaggerated – By Simon Freemantle and Desné Masie

Julius Malema - his influence on South African political life is wildly exaggerated, as is commentary on the country's decline.

On 16 August 2012, 34 miners were killed and nearly 80 injured in confrontations with police, while scores more were arrested and allegedly tortured during a wildcat strike at Lonmin PLC’s Platinum Mine in Marikana, South Africa. The event was breathtakingly tragic and has highlighted the deep socio-economic fissures underlying South African society. Perhaps most tragic was that it took a crisis of such magnitude to alert many to the structural concerns it represents.

Yet, in his analysis of the event published on this website, Keith Somerville joins some of the more jaded international commentators assessing South Africa to signal the beginning-of-the-end for a country which has, he seems to suggest, failed in its post-apartheid endeavours. Somerville’s title – Mines, Malema and Mangaung: South Africa’s descent into a morass of corruption, greed and factionalism – is in itself concerning due to its its speed in condemning the country to the nefarious league of failed states.

There is much that troubles us about the article, especially that it is neither informative nor useful enough as a robust analysis, predicated as it is on a few select media sources representative of the rhetorical shorthand that too often these days stands in for South African political analysis. This bent in analysis is prone to exaggeration and simplification in comprising a feedback loop of sweeping statements; vast generalisations; and untested allegations, without affording sufficient attention to the profound contextual and historical forces which continue, understandably, to shape South Africa. In addition to this, the momentum effect of such analysis on political and economic sentiment wills a self-fulfilling prophecy for its veracity. Acknowledging the effect on foreign investor sentiment, those in a position to comment on South Africa to an influential audience must ensure that their statements are not hinged on the platitudes of attention-grabbing disaster pornography.

South Africa remains a deeply complex country; triumph and tragedy coexist in a daily dance of delicate social, political and economic forces. Our history, meanwhile, is pervasive. While there are many who may suggest otherwise, eighteen years is not sufficient to reverse three centuries of systematic race-based colonialism and apartheid. Yes, it is arguable whether the pace of change is sufficiently robust to address these structural constraints, but it would take an act of staggering naivety to fail to acknowledge the potent influence of apartheid in the tragedy that took place at Marikana. Resting on simplistic evaluations of government failure does not acknowledge South Africa’s multifaceted nature, as well as the need for commentary which contributes towards building the deeper levels of understanding necessary to construct a broader future.

This is not to suggest that analysis must be intentionally modest – indeed, the calamity of Marikana undeniably calls for an appropriately robust response. Yet, we fear that Somerville’s article focuses too much on the popular politics of South Africa, and does not sufficiently contemplate the wide range of actors complicit in the tragedy: in addition to the government, mining executives, the miners themselves, the unions, the police and armed forces, and South Africa’s increasingly apathetic privileged class must all consider their direct or indirect role in allowing the tragedy to occur.

Last year, Lonmin’s top three executives took home pay equivalent to the entire gross annual remuneration of all 3,000 striking rock drill operators at Marikana. South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, and Johannesburg, which lies close to the Marikana mine, its most unequal city. In a country such as South Africa, this gulf, which is mapped in other industries, is unsustainable. Insufficient efforts to lift social conditions around many South African mines in line with the much-heralded mining charter are also a contributing force. Marikana must inspire a deep and lasting interrogation of how to overcome these myriad structural challenges. Surely the need to do so inspires a similar need for analysis which emboldens this pursuit? If, as Somerville seems to suggest, the end is nigh for South Africa – the inevitable decline is in full motion – then there is little point in this effort. But we disagree, we see the remarkable change that has taken place in the country since 1994, and we are confident that the means exist to surmount the equally towering challenges that continue to plague us almost two decades after the end of apartheid.

Beyond the above, two more specific shortcomings of Somerville’s article warrant attention. The first is the importance placed on the mining sector as a means to display South Africa’s “descent”. While mining certainly remains a critical cog in the economy, its real contribution to gross domestic product today stands at around 5 percent. South Africa’s diverse economy, increasingly linked to alternate non-traditional poles of commercial influence throughout the emerging world, will not simply crumble in light of the ongoing labour unrest across the platinum belt or the resultant foreign divestment taking place just now from the mining sector. Further, its growth prospects remain rosier than that of Europe. Economic analysis of South Africa should rely on real data, and not sentiment.

Secondly, Somerville joins several others within and outside South Africa in continuing to equate the hullabaloo surrounding the political opportunist, Julius Malema, with real influence.  The fiasco which greeted Malema’s speech to suspended South African National Defence Force (SANDF) employees last week, certainly exacerbated by the placing of the army on “high alert” by South Africa’s Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Novisiwe Mapisa-Nqakula, is emblematic of this disconnect.  Malema himself laughed at the overreaction, while minister in the presidency, Trevor Manuel, noted there were more journalists than soldiers present.

As we head towards the ANC’s elective congress at Mangaung in December it is likely that what political analyst Steven Friedman has called the “season of breathless commentary” will develop once again, with Marikana adding a deeply emotive element to these discussions. It is, however, important for commentators to remain composed, and imbue analysis with the necessarily balanced interpretation of complex forces. Resorting to simplistic platitudes, and hanging heads in resignation to the inevitable Armageddon, as Somerville has done, will not only be ineffectual – but also damaging.

The Marikana tragedy must be used as a means for South Africans to robustly and honestly evaluate the state of the nation. We believe it could become the catalyst for South Africa to take meaningful action on inequality. In the wake of the Marikana tragedy there has been a weight of commentary from South Africans piecing together their feeling on what the country has become, most of it has been deeply sobering. But at the very least, such commentary has been nuanced and reflective about South Africa’s complex reality and constructive about the way forward – which, in our opinion, Somerville’s was not.

Simon Freemantle and Desné Masie grew up in post-apartheid South Africa. They have written this article in their personal capacities.

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7 thoughts on “Apocalypse South Africa: rumours of Armageddon greatly exaggerated – By Simon Freemantle and Desné Masie

  1. Being active in business development operations, I appreciate this attempt to rescue our Country’s reputation. It is however time to face reality and replace all sorry stories with facts. This is if we are serious in business to save this country. I don’t care who agree or disagree as long as you consider the real facts on the table.

    Unlike the rest of Africa, Apartheid “GAVE” the ANC:
    1) a first world country with a brilliant investment potential
    2) a 100 year old Public Pension Fund worth trillions
    3) an educated, trained and innovative white work force with international standard education system
    4) mineral resources with a mining infrastructure and technology being the best in the world
    5) clean reputable tourism facilities and diversity in cultural wealth
    6) a peace loving nation of all races WITH WELL DEVELOPED SOCIAL STRUCTURE proved by their spontaneous united voice when all sang together Shosholoza better than their national anthem at the first international Rugby match.
    7) Law and Order protecting borders and preventing corruption, exploitation of workers and secure investor interest in all industries
    8) an economic disadvantaged “Non White” greater part of the Nation, of which the human capital was not yet utilized, to be incorporated into this well developed economy enabling great investment potential for new business development, economic growth and wealth for all South Africans.

    If the ANC took the wrong road of self interest, forcing Corporates into bribing policies, causing workers to bare the results, don’t blame Apartheid (which actually gave them a head start) for their own doings. You get only so many chances in live before all doors are closed. Don’t waste it!

    If South Africa wants to survive, it is time to reconsider attitudes and start taking the honest road as this is the only road which will really empower! Playing the martyr, not counting blessings, not protecting interest, being a beggar playing bad cop – good cop will only bring destruction as is the case since the ANC took control using the illusion of a struggle to create a real struggle.

    No country is all the world could ever bare this kind of ignorance and corruption, South Africa won’t either!

  2. Following the above response to Keith Somerville’s ‘Mines, Malema and Mangaung’ piece, from Desné Masie and Simon Freemantle, Desné and Keith continued the debate via email. We thought the discussion sufficiently illuminating to warrant publication on African Arguments in its own right. The debate has been lightly edited by an impartial non-participant.


    From: Keith Somerville
    Sent: 18 September 2012
    To: Desné Masie
    Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments

    Hi Desné, thanks for the e-mail.

    I was confused by your piece, to be honest, as it seemed to be more a bit of a rant along the lines of ‘how dare these foreigners criticise the ANC after all it’s done’. I couldn’t find anything of substance where you weakened my argument or really challenged it… It seemed that you objected to the tone more than anything else.

    I was not predicting apocalypse, but South Africa and the ANC are approaching a watershed and the ANC will either lose support or…[require] an amazing resurrection which will involve a purge of corrupt elements and place-seekers.

    My analysis is strongly supported by much of what [Zwelinzima] Vavi [General Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions – COSATU] has said in recent years, the conclusions of Martin Plaut’s excellent book Who Rules South Africa and Moeletsi Mbeki’s recent analysis.

    …my analysis is from the left, lamenting the ANC’s undoubted descent into greed, corruption and what seems to be a policy vacuum. I sympathise strongly with the miners who are striking…the company and the union…are both failing them.

    Regarding Malema, he is a force. He is not just hot air. He can appeal cynically to the young, unemployed and downtrodden (just as Hitler did) without any intention of helping them in the long-term but as a means of gaining power or influence. Youth League leaders have frequently affected the direction of the ANC (Mandela/Sisulu/Lembede but also Mokaba throwing his weight behind Mbeki and shafting Ramaphosa).

    Malema helped unseat Mbeki and now wants to unseat Zuma in favour of either Motlanthe or Sexwale (who has proved to be a disappointing, unprincipled opportunist). He now has ample opportunity to say that he was wrongly kicked out of the ANC by a leadership that has lost its way.

    Best wishes,


  3. From: Desné Masie
    Sent: 18 September
    To: Keith Somerville
    Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments

    Dear Keith

    I would say we meant largely to engage with the negative synopsis and tone of your article. There was insufficient space to go into some of the finer points, but this is a country that [still works], and mining is not as important to the economy today as it was historically… In my opinion, [your] piece, which was relentlessly negative in tone and outlook, was an example of increasingly negative commentary in the wake of Marikana, and [is broadly representative of] the manner in which South Africa is written about generally.

    This is also partly the fault of the South African media, which enjoys a robust culture of debate that is also prone to exaggeration. This, of course, also spills into international press networks. So, I would say that saying the country is “descending into into a morass” would fit into a broader apocalyptic narrative that is extant in the international press in terms of its consumption of African news.

    But this is subjective and open to interpretation, and you may feel, contrary to the aims of your body of work as a journalist. I would, however, say that, in my opinion, the international press and its role in observation and informing is welcome. I take issue, however, when the Global South is framed in these accounts. And these countries are forced into a permanently defensive position, constantly having to prove they’re not about to tank.

    Where we agree is that the event should prompt the government into taking meaningful action on inequality.

    Which brings me to Who Rules South Africa – which I reviewed here, and also interviewed the authors. While the book makes some good points, provides a snapshot about South Africa, you will see I asked Paul [Holden] and Martin [Plaut] similarly, if they did not think their synopsis was far too negative and reliant on the negative SA media sources I mentioned earlier…I am appealing for a framing of South Africa that is not prejudged by a doom and gloom outlook that is … too rife in opinion and analysis …and contrary to the views of South Africans who feel that there is still much to be positive about.

    That being said, Paul pointed out that…in his opinion, countries such as Italy are more corrupt than South Africa, but of course we must speak out on corruption anywhere it rears its ugly head.

    …In a personal capacity, I have voted against the party in elections, since I feel it is complacent about its majority. I would say though that while it has failed in some aspects, and the stink around Zuma needs airing etc, South Africa has enjoyed many milestones – significantly that it has had free and fair elections and is developing a welfare state, the grants from which have lifted many people out of poverty. Houses have been built, the economy has been stable. I do not think that current media analysis local and domestic in that regard is balanced.

    …by no means am I saying that foreign correspondents should not write about South Africa. I also know that the media and international community played significant part in liberating South Africa, but I am also saying let’s not be so soon to damn it, even though we all would be disappointed after its extraordinary transition to democracy that it would not succeed. This is why I mention that I write in a personal capacity – if only because I think the ability of South Africans to galvanise around the good of the country is a testimony of their commitment to democracy. But while I am saying let’s give the country a chance, I’m not absolving the government from its responsibilities.

    Re: Malema
    I have written on him as well – and agree with some of what you say as well as that he speaks some uncomfortable truths, but largely I think he is an opportunistic PR machine afforded too much attention and that is what has made him seem truly powerful. Essentially, I feel he is ruthlessly self-serving. Time will reveal if he truly is a kingmaker, but my feeling is not.

    Re: Moeletsi Mbeki
    I think he makes some good points, and the abuse of BEE does require some introspection… While I feel BEE is an insufficient response to years of unequal opportunities, somehow racial inequality from the past needs to be addressed? I think that white South Africans make an enormous contribution to South Africa, but economic power does need to shift. Moeletsi’s views on the state of the South African economy are not entirely correct though. South Africa has continued to enjoy GDP growth, and this is remarkable considering the contraction in trade and investment due to the global financial crisis.

    Kind regards


  4. From: Keith Somerville
    Sent: 18 September 2012
    To: Desné Masie
    Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments

    Dear Desné,

    My generally negative analysis, is I think supported by the trends within South Africa since the early years of the millennium, when the ANC began to appear very divided (rather than being a broad church that enabled and encouraged different views and an element of compromise) and the Zuma-Mbeki conflict started. I don’t believe strong criticism necessarily equates with an apocalyptic view – South Africa is in a negative phase but one that is capable of reversal. But at the moment, the ANC does not seem united, to have coherent policies, a process of realistic planning or the will to reform. That may come at or after Mangaung, or it may need further breakaways, perhaps on the left and from within Cosatu.
    Perhaps the best thing that could develop is a left-wing party taking in elements within the ANC, Cosatu and civil society groups – maybe the ANC has served its purpose, however noble that purpose it was.

    Certainly mining is not as key to the overall economy as before, but it is a major employer and one where there has been no trickle down of benefits to workers, let alone redistribution, and in which the worst results of BEE can be seen. But beyond mining, the situation seems no better. There is no serious attempt at investment in infrastructure and much private investment goes into the top end of the economy – things like malls, rampant consumerism for those who have stayed rich or benefitted since 1994, and housing in gated communities for the beneficiaries of 1994 and those who have remained rich.

    The poor majority are as poor or poorer than ever – as shown by the poverty level wages paid at Marikana. Service delivery is indescribably bad – whether provinces are under-spending on basic education for the poor or the Limpopo textbook scandal. Unemployment is high and workers are as poorly paid as under apartheid.

    Finally, there is seeming impunity of ANC leaders and their cronies before the law. They can be accused and charged, but how many actually have their political careers affected or are convicted?

    The host of accusations against Malema were not followed up until he turned against Zuma and now suddenly the Hawks are after him. Zuma has a score of investigations or corruption-related charges outstanding, but will he ever stand trial? As in Berlusconi’s Italy, those close to power and able to harness support from ANC grandees or use the intelligence services, are immune from the law. The rule of law is shaky; the police corrupt and tinged with the brutality of the apartheid in their standard operating procedures against strikes or demos and the judiciary is subject to political interference.

    This may not be Armageddon or terminal but it is something that must be reversed or it will lead to mass alienation from the political process, and the growth of industrial, communal and political violence. South Africa still works for some, but it fails to work for the majority.

    Best wishes


  5. Petronella, you are staggeringly off the mark in your assessment of what the ANC inherited (or to use your callous term was ‘given’) by the apartheid state. Perhaps the most blindingly naive of your statements is that post-1994 South Africa was a “peace loving” country, with the structural mechanisms in place for a fluid transition. Economically, South Africa was bankrupt. But let’s cast that aside for now. The education system in place for much of the country’s history had been intentionally deficient for the majority of the population. And the white South Africans you suggest were ready to constructively contribute to the country’s revival left in their droves – terrified by the assault on their positions of privilege. You say, also, that the ANC inherited a system of “law and order” which prevented against the exploitation of workers. The apartheid system was based entirely on the exploitation of black workers, and the system of law and order you proclaim to be so strong was precisely the system which, violently and oppressively, ensured that an unjust system was able to prevail for such a protracted period. Mandela provided the means for South Africa to avert a far more violent transition, but in doing so white South Africans felt that they had been provided with blanket amnesty for their complicity (whether conscious or not) in the apartheid system. Your seeming failure to acknowledge the depth of the legacy of apartheid, and the need for informed analysis to contribute towards its reversal, is extremely concerning.

  6. If we want Malema to grow stronger in influence, all he needs to do is broadcast views such as those that Petronella holds, which abound in various shades and nuances amongst the white South African population. The widely held view amongst black South Africans is that they have done their part in reconciliation and forgiveness and have not seen white people reciprocating. Pointing (with reason) to all those whites who have benefitted from post-apartheid but have not “come to the party” as we like to say will prove highly useful for the ANC as well, because in a time of loss of legitimacy, you want to divert popular anger elsewhere. Zimbabwe is a case in point). Let’s leave that one there …
    I do think that the “Mines, Malema and Manguang” article is a very narrow interpretation of what is happening in South Africa. Marikana will most definitely be a watershed moment in the future of the country, but unless you balance the positive with the negative, you can’t really make a proper assessment of where the country is headed. The ANC is not the nation or its institutions, mining is not the economy, and Malema is not its youth or black population.

    Where I have hope for South Africa is that Marikana is going to broaden discussions, make space for new voices, and shift (ie open up) the debate towards the burning socio-economic issues. It is completely unrealistic to expect that South Africa would run into difficulties and crisis at some stage. Marikana breaks the dream held by many South Africa, that it is “different” (meaning completely different) to other African countries. So the real question is whether the country–with its institutions, constitution, exceptional diversity and multiplicity of actors has the wherewithal to come out better at the end of the crisis. I for one have not made up my mind at all, things can go both ways. Things can either get worse before they get better (which they always do) or they will go from bad to better.

    There are so many spaces where I see light and hope, both amongst those at the bottom of the economic ladder, all the way through to the top. These elements have to be the other part of the analysis, otherwise the article simply becomes one more piece of unhelpful, acontextual and ahistorical Western afropessimism under a dubious banner of concern for the continent. That is a harsh thing to say, but as Africans we do get tired of well intentioned analysis based on headlines, rather than a depth of understanding on where things are at.

  7. Your article as well as the replies fascinate me, if this is the correct word.
    I would prefer not to condemn anyone who has voiced an opinion on any matter in the discussion and as such will only lament the hanging on onto things long gone by.
    I am 66 years old and was brought up in a social area and by parents who were kindhearted and soft spoken. They did not bear grudges or spoke badly about any one or any system per se. What they did teach me was non-hatred towards any person, thing or system.
    If reason for hating was to be found one could only “blame” the British who it seems had no regard for anything. The initial “invaders” of South Africa from overseas i.e. the Dutch, French, Russians, etc. settled in areas and started developing the ground and infrastructure as much they could. Where confrontation appeared from locals the settlers often decided to rather pack their bags and meander away from whoever was taunting them or making life uncomfortable hence the trek towards the north which was enhanced by the colonialists which, from what history shows, had little mercy on handing down continental justice to the locals without due regard to the locals having their own peculiar way of settling differences, transgressions, etc.
    The treatment of the “boer” families during the Anglo-Boer war atrocious at times if taking the war crimes of concentration camps etc. into consideration. This was enough reason for any Afrikaner family to be filled with hatred towards the English.
    In spite of the above my folks never in all my life carried a grudge against anyone – not the British who killed some of my forebears; not the criminals who stole whatever from us, not the fellow Afrikaners who did them in in some way or the other.
    In fact to hate or begrudge anyone of anything does oneself more harm than those being hated.
    When I was younger we did not have a motorcar – not even till 1963 when I matriculated. I was taught that debt was an evil way in which companies get a hold over households – as did the art of advertising to entice people to get what they don’t really need. They did not advertise to satisfy needs but to satisfy wants.
    Teachers, post office workers, bus drivers, clerks and other day to day jobholders drove used Ford Anglias, Consuls and Zephyrs or Chev Firenzas or Fiat 1100 – not the latest 4×4 Land Rovers, Lincolns, Mercedes Benz’s, etc.
    Beer salaried people did not drive champagne salaried vehicles.
    I see the decline and decadence of the world daily and would prefer the ideal communist/socialist state if it were not for the “fat cats” who would propagate it and once they get it going live a “capitalist” lifestyle while their faithfull following get treated with disdain and no respect as was seen in the heyday of the USSR.
    Today is the only real day there is – not tomorrow or next year. Get peace into the hearts of people today even though it doesn’t put money and luxury at your disposal.
    The love for money is the root of all that is bad.
    Cheers and take care to love all about you.

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