Is South Africa beyond repair?

The veteran journalist, Stanley Uys, assesses the current crisis.

Hermann Giliomee, formerly a professor at both Cape Town and Stellenbosch universities, is one of South Africa's most prominent historians. As such he has delved long and deep into the country's past. But he does not hesitate to look into the future as well, as he has just done in an article which appeared on February 8 in the Afrikaans daily newspapers, Die Burger (Cape Town) and Die Beeld (Johannesburg). See here.

Briefly, Giliomee says the first crisis was the 1929 Depression and the second was the race turbulence, tighter sanctions and capital flight in 1985-1990. The third crisis is the present one: the crisis in electricity and water supply, steady collapse of the infrastructure, the acute shortage of skills, one of the highest violent crime rates in the world and rampant corruption to which the government seems to turn a blind eye. Many of these developments are the result of a policy of too rapid 'transformation' and black empowerment.

Die Burger reported on February 8 "an unprecedented wave of inquiries about emigration mainly from people belonging to ethnic minorities" (whites, coloureds, Indians). For many outside the ranks of the ANC a catalyst has been the ousting of Thabo Mbeki as president of the African National Congress, his replacement by Jacob Zuma, and the crisis in the electricity supply.

The article is scrupulously objective, as one would expect from Giliomee. The last sentence though has provoked a response. It reads: "But one thing is certain: we can also come out of this crisis." This single sentence provoked a response that goes to the heart of a debate that already is enveloping the country: Has the putsch against Mbeki irredeemably damaged the post-1994 political/state structure or will the brutal post-Polokwane warfare in the ANC eventually subside and allow some normality to return to a battered and torn country? In other words, will the crisis be overcome, or should South Africa be written off now for the foreseeable future as a basket case?

The response Giliomee received was from another prominent Afrikaner (not an academic), who e-mailed: "I read your column in Die Burger today - whistling past the graveyard in the dark ('fluit-fluit verby die kerkhof'). I think you are rather optimistic that everything will come right. The new power bloc - the people accused of ‘gangsterism' by Ken Owen - are going to plunder the state, as in Zimbabwe. A prominent Democratic Alliance Member of Parliament said to me this week: ‘The barbarians are at the gates. Where will leaders with the necessary understanding and capabilities come from'?"

To this critic, Giliomee replied: "I wrote that we can come out of the crisis, not will come out of the crisis." The critic responded: "Touche. But still you write that SA will come out of this crisis eventually, which perhaps can be interpreted as meaning if we can struggle on like Zimbabwe. Should you not rather have warned that our arrogant, self-satisfied cadres should start moving their limbs. Nothing concentrates the mind like the threat of hanging."

The critic added: "I'm convinced that the myth of ‘liberation movement' lies at the heart of the mess into which the ANC has misgoverned us. They are unable to become a normal political party, and the country can only benefit once the ‘movement' self-destructs, like the once mighty United Party & National Party before it. (Although with Zuma we might get something even worse). ‘Liberation' no longer has a mission. Its sole driving force is self-interest - power and money."

The historian speaks
Giliomee's mindset is important here. As an historian, he writes in the knowledge that over the centuries scores of countries have had their crises, and most of these countries are still around. It's a broad, historical sweep. Crises are not new. Also, Giliomee is likely to have recalled a fellow-South African historian, Cornelis de Kiewiet, who made the famous remark that South Africa advances by political disasters and economic windfalls. Well, electricity outages have partially closed some mines and reduced the windfall from the higher gold price, but the platinum is still there, hugely profitable, an unexpected windfall.

Giliomee's critic on the other hand, looking as far as the eye can see, perceives mostly gloom and doom. I find myself fluctuating between the two. One day, I think Giliomee is right; the next day that his critic is right. In an eccentric moment, I turned to two poets for enlightenment, although neither of them remotely would have factored South Africa into their writings. Giliomee will find support from one poet; his critic from the other.

The first poet is C.P. Cavafy, an Alexandrian Greek who died in 1933. In 1904, he wrote Waiting for the Barbarians, from which I extract these few lines (the Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard translation). In a quite extraordinary way, Cavafy captures some of the bewilderment and depression presently unsettling South Africa:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today...
Why did the emperor get up so early,
And why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
In state, wearing the throne?
Because the barbarians are coming today ...
Why don't our distinguished orators turn up as usual
To make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
And they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
Everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.
Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

True. The Zuma momentum was a kind of solution. It got rid of Mbeki. Would Giliomee, on reading the poem, say to himself that the pessimists actually seem to want the barbarians to come, because so much has been destroyed already, and it is better to destroy the rest, and get it over and done with? The solution pulls the pillars of the temple down with it. Would the post-solution period be worth living in? Is this what the pessimists believe? Dispirited, do they see no prospect of reform - just start from the foundations again?

A different response?
However there is another poet - to whom Giliomee's critics might turn. Good old WB Yeats, who wrote The Second Coming. I quote from these poems, perhaps eccentrically, because their words are timeless and they resonate so strongly with the situation in South Africa today. First, there are the more well-worn extracts, the one all commentators like to quote (on a multitude of occasions):

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Well, Giliomee's critics might say, isn't that exact? Didn't Jacob Zuma, with 'passionate intensity', just the other day, say that the ANC would rule until the Second Coming of Jesus? Is it not obvious that in South Africa things are falling apart, as the centre (so crudely constructed by Mbeki) fails to hold? And is it not true (as the Two Centres of Power argument bores on) that the falcon certainly cannot hear the falconer? There are other lines in Yeats' poem, not as well-worn, which point perhaps more directly to Zuma. They send a chill up the spine:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Is it at this point that Giliomee's critics might suggest: game, set and match? Yet against this must be balanced Giliomee, with history in his blood, his extraordinary capacity for not just intellectually understanding the ways of the world, but sensing them, and why crises rise and fall. Here is the new debate taking shape in South Africa: can the crisis in the ANC, rippling everywhere, be overcome, or is all, really, lost?

If I personally hesitate to take sides, write it off as the old liberal slideaway. Other readers, I am sure, will be more decisive.

This is an edited version of an article first published on