South Africa - into the frying pan and into the fire

by Dr Mark Nicholson



On July 11, I sent our two youngest girls back to school. At least I thought I did. Their journey as usual starts at 0100am with our drive through curfewed Nairobi for a 2am check in for a 5am flight. As the crow flies, their school is 3,236 km south of here, but airlines don’t fly like crows. Their journey goes via Addis Ababa, another flight to Johannesburg, then to King Shaka (remember the name) International in Durban, ending with a road trip to Pietermaritzburg, the judicial capital of South Africa, where a trial is resuming of an ex-President. The total distance of their trip is therefore 5,834km.


In Kenya, there have been around 3,500 deaths from Covid. In South Africa, 70,000. But in our children’s age bracket, the case fatality rate is effectively zero in almost every country in the world; any epidemiologist would say there is no risk for our children. The risk, of course, is transmission of the virus from a child with an asymptomatic infection to a susceptible adult, especially in the time of Delta. So, they have had to quarantine every time . With two girls, four terms per year, eight trips and a Covid test before every trip at $80 per test, there is the little bill so far of over $1,300 for tests (one daughter testing positive and four hours later negative…she travelled with the latter certificate), to which one must add my wife’s recent quarantine in a London airport hotel ($2,618). This is the hot Covid frying pan and now I will explain how it is connected to the fire.


The girls touch down at King Shaka (and the eponym is germane to this story) on that Sunday afternoon at exactly the time South Africa erupts without warning, with its epicentre in Durban. Within hours, every mall was trashed, and every supermarket was looted. Over 100 lay dead. Race threatened race, nasty murderous messages pinged around. Three days later the girls’ wonderful guardian told me she had run out of supplies, so for their safety’s sake and to find some food, she was flying with them 1,600km southwest to Cape Town.


Why, you may now be asking, send my daughters to school in South Africa? The answer is straightforward. I was there in 1991, one year after Nelson Mandela was released. In 1995, when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in Cape Town, my friend Gavin captained an SAA 747 adorned with the Rainbow Nation’s’ new colours at close to stalling speed a few hundred feet above the stadium in which Mandela presided over the match, the first major sporting event since the end of apartheid. Optimism was everywhere: South Africa would lead Africa into the new century with reconciliation, racial harmony, economic development and wealth creation for the oppressed masses. I invested with other South African friends in the building of a house in Johannesburg. We cashed in but then I could not cash out. But at least it pays the school fees. The schools are traditional, now multi-racial, and, above all, our girls are happy there.


So what happened? Whom do we start with? King Shaka? Henrik Verwoerd? Mandela? Zuma? How do these radically different characters fit together? Let me go in chronological order.


In the early 19th Century, King Shaka was the great, cruel and murderous ruler of the Zulus who crushed all surrounding tribes. His vast and ruthless army scoured southern Africa like safari ants. The northern raiding parties ended up as the Matabele in what is now Zimbabwe, equally feared for their military prowess. The Zulus have always been a proud, tough and masterful race but at the same time devoted to their beautiful land of green hills and cattle pastures. Let Britons never forget that Zulus armed with only spears (assegais and iklwas) defeated a modern British army at Isandlwana in 1879.


Eventually, British colonial might was to subdue all the races of southern Africa. The Zulus were emasculated and that has never been forgotten. Zululand became Natal and much of their land stolen to grow sugar. Twenty years later came the Boer wars (the Dutch-speaking Afrikaners call them the Engels wars), which were a classic case of the huge British army winning the battles but losing the war. By 1920, Afrikaners had rapidly outnumbered the English speakers. White Afrikanerdom took power and in 1948, Hendrik Verwoerd led the country into racial separate development (Apartheid). That same year a Natal-born writer, Alan Paton, wrote Cry the Beloved Country, a sad novel about the Zulu’s deep love of their land and the lost tribal structure that once held them together. Just six years later Robert Ruark wrote a similar novel about Kenya, prefaced by a Basuto proverb: ‘If a man does away with his traditional way of living, he had better first make certain that he has something of value to replace them.’


Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa, was elected President in 1994. Wisely, but sadly, he retired after one term. Thabo Mbeki, another non-Zulu, took over in 1999 until 2008. A third, non-Zulu, caretaker President made way for Jacob Zuma, the first Zulu president. Yes, the Zulus have a King, but in 2009 they got an Emperor who commanded all the tribes of South Africa. The Zulu nation, the largest tribe in South Africa comprising 22 percent of the country, was now in charge again.


In 2018 Zuma resigned over endless corruption charges including accepting nearly 800 illegal payments from a $5bn arms deal. In June this year he was sentenced to 18 months for contempt of court for failing to appear to answer the charges. When he handed himself over for prison, the Zulu nation erupted as one. Or did it? Or was it a prearranged uprising orchestrated by a handful of ANC troublemakers in order to get rid of the incumbent President of both south Africa and the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, a Venda, which is a minority tribe.


South Africa is still effectively a one-party state. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is weak and perceived still as a ‘white’ party. At the other extreme is an ANC breakaway rabble-rouser, Julius Malema, who heads the Economic Freedom Fighters and makes the late Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe seem like a benign old gentleman. Malema has been charged with fraud, money-laundering, and racketeering and convicted of hate speech after singing Dubul’ ibhunu (Shoot the Boer). Even the ANC perceive him as a nasty piece of work, but venality rarely prevents anyone reaching the top in Africa.


As an outsider, I believe there have been three things that came together for the perfect storm. First, the Covid ‘frying pan’ has greatly weakened the economy. Unemployment and poverty are rife. Second, the ANC is becoming unpopular anyway and is in danger of splitting apart. The Zulus would love to wrest control of it. The ANC has had thirty years to deliver on its promises and very little has changed for the better. They cannot blame apartheid forever. The country should be the giant economy of Africa, but it is crumbling socially as well as economically. Wealth is hugely skewed, electricity production has crashed, the state-controlled airline has gone under, and millions are suffering. But the third issue is that old African bugbear: tribalism. The Zulus want to reassert their authority.

Last year, I hosted two Russians for many weeks when they could not get back to Dubai. One, Andrei, was a tall patrician Muscovite, the other, Roslan, a small, tough Tatar from Kazan, 1000km south-east of Moscow. Naturally, we got on to the subject of Putin. Andrei insisted that “the Russian people” were still “children” in need of a strict father-figure. They need a Czar, they have always needed a Czar, and no one cares how venal that Czar is, as long as he is strong leader (and presumably he included Catherine here). Roslan, usually apolitical, agreed.


Is it fair to extrapolate this to the Zulu nation? The Zulus must know like everyone else that Zuma's presidency is estimated to have cost the South African economy R1 trillion (around US$83 billion). He has been implicated in reports of state capture through his friendship with the Gupta brothers. What we see now in South Africa is a country where a prisoner became the President and another President has become a prisoner.


Shaka and Zuma might be viewed by history as equally flagitious in their different ways. Murderous Shaka is still known as a great leader. Many Zulus today can forgive Zuma his crimes as long as he is restored to the presidency. That is unlikely to happen, but the recent violence was an attempt not only to release Zuma from prison but to unseat Ramaphosa, who may still be unable to retain power. Will the peace that has been restored, actually last? Some doubt it. South Africa is a strange and beautiful country, but it needs racial and tribal reconciliation desperately.


The final comment comes from an Afrikaner lady who travelled back with me from the Mara in Kenya last week. She had just come back from the Karoo in southern South Africa with her husband where they were visiting her parents. She told me she had been told by her parents’ Cape Coloured staff how deeply disappointed they all were by the ANC’s performance since 1994. The ANC were “a bunch of self-serving crooks who have no interest in the welfare of the masses”. “So, who are you going to vote for at the next election?”, she asked them. ‘Oh, the ANC of course. Who else is there?’. The answer, actually, is Malema. So beware: the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

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