21 September 2012
Thomas Cargill
(Former Chatham House Expert)


There is no getting away from the gravity of the situation facing South Africa. The Marikana killings and the turmoil that has followed is just the most recent and, thus far, loudest of a long crescendo of reminders that South Africa's post-apartheid transition period is over.

South Africans are clearly facing fundamental choices about the future of the country. The emotion evident in much of the debate among citizens about where to go from here is plainly appropriate given the issues at stake.

Yet it is worth remembering that the kind of debate going on in South Africa – heartfelt and often divisive as it is – simply could not happen in many parts of the world. It is a mark of the freedoms that many South Africans now take for granted that this is the case.

It is just one more reminder of how far the country has come since 1994, often in the face of formidable odds. It is also a reminder of the comparative dexterity and patience with which the ANC and the tripartite alliance have generally managed the transition to this point.

South Africans are not as different as they might think from citizens of many other states in their tendency to be both overly self-critical and sometimes, as a result, defensive when it comes to their country.


Yet the alarmist tone of much international and some domestic coverage of recent events does give some particular justification to such feelings. Comparisons with Zimbabwe and some other countries in the region are not only unhelpful but also wrong on many levels.

South Africa's institutions are far stronger than those in many other states, both regionally and internationally. Just to be clear: this is not in any way to downplay the well-publicised shortcomings of the South African political and economic system, but rather to draw attention to the foundations upon which the system is built, which, though not impregnable, are not as weak as many believe. The danger is that doom-laden commentary about South Africa ignores the post-apartheid positive gains and encourages the panic and division sought by some.

Creating or stoking a crisis is after all a timeworn strategy for demagogues with little to lose. Internationally there are those, too, who would like to see South Africa brought down a peg or two at the very least. They range from those remaining in Western states, who still resent South Africa's freedom and still want black majority rule to fulfil their prejudices, to those within other increasingly vibrant African economies who chafe at South Africa's continental leadership and would like to claim it for themselves.

The international system itself is at a critical moment of change, beset by its own fundamental questions about legitimacy and organisation. It desperately needs more South African leadership, not less. As the West finally loses the ascendency it jealously guarded for so long, and a more equal global association is sought, South Africa's experience – both positive and negative – is more valuable than ever. The world simply cannot afford an inward-looking and uncertain South Africa at this time.

South Africa's rosy post-apartheid glow is now over, and the country is being forced to confront itself again. Hopefully this will, in retrospect, be seen as a difficult but important period when many of the outstanding legacies of apartheid – including its corruption and economic stratification on racial lines – were finally tackled.

Past experience demonstrates that this is achievable, and that South Africa can go on to offer a model for many others to follow.

What is important now is that South Africans act with confidence and decisiveness, and do not allow themselves be talked into deeper crisis by those who would seek to benefit from it.

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The article originally appeared in the Mail and Guardian.