GIANT AMONG MEN: Barack Obama gives a moving speech about Mandela's policy of unity and reconciliation at the former president's 2013 memorial. Obama returns to South Africa this year to present the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.Picture:  Evan Vucci/ AP Photo
GIANT AMONG MEN: Barack Obama gives a moving speech about Mandela's policy of unity and reconciliation at the former president's 2013 memorial. Obama returns to South Africa this year to present the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.Picture: Evan Vucci/ AP Photo

The 2010s were a truly turbulent decade for South Africa

By Dennis Pather Time of article published Dec 28, 2019

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Ask most South Africans about their saddest memory of the departing decade, and they’ll instinctively pencil in the date December 5, 2013 - the day the father of our nation, Nelson Mandela died.

Then ask them about their happiest recollections, and they will remember a decade bookended by two unforgettably euphoric sporting moments in South African history.

It opened with our hugely successful hosting of the Soccer World Cup in 2010 when we welcomed more than three million football fans and visitors from around the world.

Many say it was the best year of the decade - the rand stabilised; the criminals took some time off from their nefarious activities; the lights stayed on; South Africa benefited from a massive injection of funds into local infrastructure.

The decade ended on an equally high note this year when Springbok captain Siya Kholisi led the country to a pulsating Rugby World Cup victory that brought home the coveted Webb Ellis Cup and a jubilant nation to its feet.

The real story of South Africa during the “twenty-tens” lies somewhere between those two epic milestones.

If the 1990s was when South Africa was rescued from apartheid, and the 2000s when the country crawled back slowly to recovery, then the 2010s was when we got well and truly captured.

And who do we have to thank for that?

Many fingers will point in the direction of former president, Jacob Zuma because he presided over the country for much of that decade - hence the oft-repeated reference to the country’s “nine wasted years”.

South Africa’s fortunes and misfortunes in those years were largely guided by this former liberation stalwart whose best days were spent in the bush, fighting racists intent on maintaining white minority rule.

But then, good liberation fighters don’t always turn out to be good politicians after the revolution, especially when they hook up with opportunistic fortune hunters, gluttonous tenderpreneurs and greedy hangers-on waiting for their turn at the feeding trough.


Under Zuma, South Africa found itself in the grips of one of the biggest corruption scandals in our history.

In a no-holds-barred feeding frenzy, the notorious Gupta brothers came, saw and looted, causing inestimable damage and destruction to the country’s economy and critical institutions that will take years to reverse.

Granted, Zuma cannot be blamed for all the sins committed under State Capture. He was aided and abetted in such complicity by many of his senior colleagues in government and business leaders out to make a quick buck.

How it will all end depends largely on how committed President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government are about bringing the culprits to book.

We are already seeing the first shoots of a fightback against corruption with the hearings of Zondo Commission of Inquiry, recent arrests and asset seizures by the Hawks and other law enforcement agencies, and last week’s visit to Abu Dhabi by a high-powered delegation of Cabinet ministers and law enforcement officers to try to persuade the UAR government to extradite the Guptas back to South Africa.

It will also depend on how we are able to build business confidence and public trust in our country and its institutions, which is now at an all-time low.


Corruption aside, South Africa was also held captive by a rash of service delivery protests, work stoppages and strikes during the 2010s, severely denting the country’s already fragile economy, and heightening tensions between the haves and have-nots in what is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

At most times, police and other security services were hard-pressed and severely under-resourced to counter the protests which saw massive destruction to properties and public facilities.

And if there are no tangible signs in the near future that government is being pro-active in meeting people’s basic needs like housing, water, electricity and jobs, South Africa can only look forward to more of the same as we enter the new decade.


Coming from a history of over 300 years of racism, colonialism, and enforced segregation, it’s not surprising that South Africa still has a long way to go before it comes to terms with issues of transformation and social cohesion.

Like Rome, a truly non-racial society in SA wasn’t going to be built in a day.

What came into sharp focus in the past decade was a heightened awareness of race issues and fairly robust debate about racial polarisation, political intolerance and hate speech - headlined by the conviction in court of people like Penny Sparrow and Vicki Momberg for their racist outbursts.

While some believed they deserved their sentences for their foul-mouthed tirades, others argued their sentences reflected a sledgehammer approach totally disproportionate to their misdemeanours - probably symptomatic of the deep divisions apartheid and racial segregation have spawned over many years of forced separation.


It is a serious indictment on the country that after 20 years since the launch of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence campaign, South Africa still grapples with the shameful avalanche of reports of violence and abuse against women.

The reports of how women are killed and injured by their partners become more sickening with every passing day. The statistics are horrifying - femicide is five times higher than the global average.

It is, some say, relieving to hear that after a long silence, Ramaphosa has, at last, placed the issue of gender inequality at centre stage by announcing an emergency plan to deal with the scourge that has plagued the nation.

But is this enough?

Sustained activism by people across all communities is needed to create a national consciousness on gender-based violence in the new decade.


Much like the curate’s egg, the state of education in the 2010s was only good in parts. While students in tertiary institutions scored a significant victory with their #FeesMustFall campaign from October 2015 - resulting in free high education for poorer students - it came at a heavy cost.

Damage to educational infrastructure at various campuses soared to over the R800 million mark, and the campaign was marred by ugly scenes of student violence and intimidation as well as incidents of police brutality against many students.

At school level, while major advances have been to improve accessibility and attendance, studies reflect that equity and the quality of education in many institutions remain major challenges.

For instance, the results of a 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study show 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. A disturbing phenomenon in schools over the past decade has been an upsurge in learner indiscipline and violence, raising safety and security concerns in government and among thousands of teachers and parents.

Hardly a day passed without media reports of parents not sending their children to school because they fear the kids would be shot or injured in the crossfire of gang violence in many townships.

There are also suggestions that the escalation of cases of learner indiscipline can be linked to the outlawing of corporal punishment at schools and a result of failure by teachers to find suitable alternative ways to discipline learners.


But it was not just South Africa that witnessed major political upheavals in the 2010s.

The passing decade also witnessed a global resurgence of right-wing populism, with far-right political parties showing parliamentary gains in 15 of the 27 European Union (EU) member countries.

This trend, threatening democratic norms that prevailed for many years, has more recently gained ground in countries like India, the Philippines, Brazil, as well as a global superpower like the US. As several policy analysts in international affairs have warned, this undermining of democratic values and institutions is a threat to global security.

It leaves the world more prone to violence and war, helps stoke crises and confrontations in many regions, and in many cases, undermines the global responses to issues like climate change, racism and migration.


On a more personal level, look how the 2010s have revolutionised communications in our world today.

Smartphones and tablets are not a luxury anymore but a functional necessity, allowing people easy access to the Internet and mass media via mobile apps, social networking and video-telephony.

Our lives have changed so radically over the past decade as a result of advancements in data processing and the rollout of 5G broadband, while online resources like social media gave rise to such phenomena as WikiLeaks and the MeToo movement.

How would we have survived without the ease of online shopping and call-out services like Uber?

Granted, there’s also a downside to the communication revolution.

It’s evoked fresh debates over issues like privacy, censorship, dependence and the rise of fake news. But we can’t have it both ways, can we?


A few decades ago, very few of us even knew what climate change meant. Today in the twenty-teens, it is an issue you ignore at your peril.

The facts are frightening but indisputable - more extreme weather events and a rise of 6°C in average temperatures across South Africa could be possible by the end of the century.

And government has taken serious note of the dangers, warning citizens of how climate change has already ravaged the country, with the worst still to come.

In the past decade, we have seen droughts cripple provinces, and when the rains do come, it is so intense it leads to fatalities and the destruction of thousands of homes.

The point could not have been more forcefully conveyed than when 16 year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg admonished world leaders for not doing enough to prevent a catastrophic heating of the planet.

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?

“If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”

Fasten your seat belts as we prepare to head into the twenty twenties.

* Dennis Pather is a columnist and retired newspaper editor.

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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