sa flag

These are some initial thoughts on the current state of South Africa, and how it has arrived at this point, emerging from various discussions I had with activists and academics while I was out there. I write, of course, as an outsider. But sometimes an outsider’s perspective can be quite useful, especially as I’ve engaged with many of issues at the heart of South African politics  – such as race, class, identity, social change – though in a different context. I hope to develop some of these thoughts into fully-fleshed essays over time.



What struck me most in talking to South Africans about politics was the degree to which fear and despair are the key emotions shaping their view. ‘It’s not rosy, but it’s not yet totally bleak’. ‘In thirty or forty years we might have a functioning democracy’. These quotes, the first from a leader of the opposition United Front in the Eastern Cape city of East London, the second from a black cabbie in Cape Town, were about the most optimistic views of the future that I heard.



For much of the black population, fear and despair arises out of the sense that everything has changed, and yet so little has.

Apartheid has been overthrown. South Africa has become a democratic nation. Pass laws have been scrapped, the Group Areas Act overthrown, the Bantu Homelands Act abolished, the inhumanity of a segregated nation and the relentless oppression of nonwhites swept away.

And yet, 20 years on, little has changed. I have already written about how, as a first time visitor, what struck me most about Cape Town was not the majesty of Table Mountain or the swankiness of the V&A Waterfront but the misery of Cape Flats, and the shack settlements that stretch out from the N2 motorway seemingly for miles. In Khayelitsha, the largest of the Cape Town townships, two-thirds of people live in shacks, more than half are unemployed, nearly three-quarters have an income below the official Household  Subsistence Level. Just 47 per cent of households have piped water, more than a quarter have no toilets, and 24 per cent no access to electricity. Most of these figures are worse than they were under apartheid.

Nor is it just social conditions that recall the days of apartheid. The shooting dead of 34 striking miners at the Marikana mine in 2012 was shocking in the extreme. ‘This was not public order policing’, an independent account concluded. ‘This was warfare’. But if the Marikana massacre was particularly shocking, it was also the extreme end of a spectrum of state violence against protestors, violence that has become normalised. Little wonder that many commentators talk of the ‘remilitarization’ of South African society.



Apartheid had an immensely dehumanizing impact on social communities. But it served also to forge social bonds across communities and to channel anger into resistance and into movements for liberation. The dehumanizing effect of contemporary social and political policies has not been the creation of stronger social bonds, but the erosion of the social fabric. And unlike under apartheid, there is for many people no obvious target against which to direct their anger and frustrations. There are protests almost daily against housing conditions, police brutality and political corruption. There is considerable anger against ANC administrations, both national and local. Yet, the relationship of people, even of critics, to the ANC is complex. It remains to most people the party that brought about liberation, and so retains considerable moral legitimacy. As a result, people often turn their anger upon each other. The explosion of xenophobic violence, directed against migrant workers from other African nations, most notably in 2008 and again this year, has been one expression of this. There is also growing conflict between apartheid-defined categories of people, such as blacks and coloureds. New conflicts have emerged, too, such as that between long time residents of Cape Town’s townships and more recent migrants from the Eastern Cape.

township 1



The political issue that dominates South Africa today is that of corruption. There is almost daily a new scandal. Corruption reaches up to the highest state office – President Jacob Zuma has been embroiled in a long- running scandal – and threatens the integrity of institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority.

What such corruption expresses is the way that state patronage has come to define politics. Politics in South Africa today is, as Raymond Suttner has put it, ‘is devoid of political content. It relates to who is rising or falling, as part of ongoing efforts to secure positions of power and authority.’ Suttner, a former ANC underground operative, and member of the South African Communist Party, imprisoned for many years under apartheid, is now, in the words of one reviewer ‘a social and political conscience for the heirs of the liberation struggle’.

The significance of the corruption scandals is that they expose, too, the distance between mass politics and elite politics. For the elite, social transformation has become a matter of personal enrichment through state patronage. For the masses, it is a matter often of simple survival. ‘At the same time as powerful individuals are being enriched’, Suttner writes, ‘communities are forced to drink and wash in polluted water, live in the streets or inhabit homes with sewage running through them – and they are shot ay when they protest.’

There are daily protests against corruption and injustice. But not only are such protests rarely woven into political campaigns for broader change, but as Suttner has pointed out, they have come to be treated by the authorities as a matter of law and order. ‘Protestors raise issues of great social concern, yet their first meeting with the institutional structures of the state… is not with political officials… [but] with the police.’ There is ‘no avenue for political engagement.’



The struggle against apartheid was conducted largely under the umbrella of ‘nonracialism’. This expressed a determination to reject the racial categories of apartheid and their dehumanizing effects. When the ANC came to power in 1994 ‘nonracialism’ transmuted into the idea of the ‘Rainbow nation’. The ‘Rainbow nation’ not just expressed a distaste for apartheid categories, however, but embodied also a failure truly to address the legacy of apartheid.

The idea of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ may have retained credibility if, at the economic and social levels, the lives of black people had truly improved. In his inaugural presidential speech in which he promised ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world’, Nelson Mandela proclaimed also, ‘Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.’

But failure of the ANC to provide in any sense justice, peace, work, bread, water and salt for all, has, as I suggested above, recreated tensions along old apartheid lines, and an outpouring of resentments never properly addressed. At the same time, as the failure to transform the lives of the poor and the powerless has eroded support for the ANC, many ANC politicians have increasingly turned to the politics of ethnicity and identity to shore up support.

It is a development that was evident under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki but has really come to the fore under Jacob Zuma’s leadership. Zuma has unashamedly exploited his Zulu identity – ‘a 100% Zulu boy’ – and promoted ‘traditionalism’ and ‘Africanism’. He has enhanced the powers of local, unelected ‘traditional chiefs’. Last year the Zuma government attempted to pass the Traditional Courts Bill that would have created a separate legal system for the 17 million people living in the former Bantustans, allowing local chiefs to act as judge, prosecutor and mediator, with no legal representation and no right of appeal. ‘Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man’s way’, Zuma proclaimed in defence of the law.

The consequence of a political elite seeking to cling to power through appeals to ethnicity and identity has been the creation of a more divided, balkanised, undemocratic nation. But many on the ground are resisting such moves. The Traditional Courts Bill was defeated by a popular opposition. Last month, a community in the Eastern Cape won a court battle to be able to elect its own leaders, rather than having one imposed on them through the Traditional Leadership and Governance Act. It cannot be right, the court accepted, that the ‘people of the Transkei region enjoyed greater democratic rights… under homeland rule [apartheid] than they do under a democratically elected government’, a telling comment on the state of contemporary South Africa.

It is in such struggles on the ground for democratic rights against the authoritarian machinations of the political elite that any hope lies for South Africa.


  1. damon

    One thing I’d like to know is whether South Africans of different types can even talk together as to what the problems are, without it falling into argumentative bickering. I’ve worked with quite a few younger white South Africans in London in the last few years and they seem to be quite gloomy about the prospects for their country. Many of them are even exiles or staying away as long as they can, because they don’t see many opportunities there in SA. I drive delivery trucks and have asked them how I (as a white man) could make a living doing that kind of job in South Africa and they laugh and say ”no way” as I’d never get such a job. It’s not a job for a white man apparently.

    I have wondered if the politicisation of the black population in the struggle against Apartheid now hampers normal capitalist development. If you talk to people there about why townships are in such appalling conditions still, you will hear some answeres that aren’t entirely sympathetic.
    One guy told me that even just supplying services like water, electricity, gas and telephones was still plagued with problems (a decade ago) because, he told me, that people just didn’t pay their bills for these services. Or couldn’t pay. So even if you built new houses for people, they wouldn’t run in the normal developed country way where people paid for what they consumed and an economy was built on the back of that. If there is corruption running through the system too, then things are bound to stagnate.
    Balkanisation was a good word to describe what’s going on I think.

    • Damon, I think your comments are spot on. Apartheid damaged just about everything, not least because labour was regarded as unworthy of the ruling class, and still has odium attached to it. The connection between labour’s cause and effect was broken, because, previously, labourers saw none of the benefits of their work.The politicization you speak of also persuades us to see through the us-and -them lens when a bit of self-scrutiny is required.Visitors from other African countries often express their dismay at our inertia and our need to embrace political parties as if they were congregations of believers instead of systems designed to enable us to function in the real world.Our present leaders play on this assumption, and cash in on our habits of blind loyalty.The grand old people of the Struggle would be appalled if they could see us now.


      Well I’m south African not white or black but that country is finished thousands of us left a lovely country for other countries,look apartheid was bad but our country was the best for investment and tourism,I went home for a holiday I felt like I was in the wrong place,I cut my holiday short wich hurt the family,it’s ruined by blacks

      • You’re ‘South African not black or white’ but the country has been ‘ruined by blacks’. I can see that you’re not obsessed by the issue of race. Getting rid of apartheid may have ruined a ‘lovely country’ for people like you, but it was lovely only for a handful of whites; for the vast majority of the population it was hell on earth. What you seem to regret is the passing of white privilege. What I regret is that the lives of many blacks have not, at the social and economic level, changed that much from the days of apartheid.

  2. Geronimo, I am sorry that you had a bad experience. S A is much better in many ways than it was, but needs urgent repair.It is in no way finished, or ruined by blacks. I am a single, elderly so-called white woman who lives in the platteland and I give thanks for the changes I see, and the’ blacks’ and all the other people I interact with everyday.Working to build the rainbow makes more sense than just copping out and vilifying the place.

  3. Until we successfully defeat corruption, nepotism and the lack of accountability at every level of society, as well as the crippling double standards enjoyed (or suffered) by individuals in the eyes of the law we have no chance of ever getting anywhere. Poverty we can deal with, unemployment we can do something about – and the generosity and entrepeneurship displayed by South Africans of every sort in the instances where we DO get it right proves that. But for that to be able to flourish the above needs to be addressed – successfully…
    Excellent piece, Ken!

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