Ten years in South Africa: An unreliable guide to the decade that was

By Terence McNamee 18 December 2019

Photo of Jacob Zuma by Greg Nicolson.

Looking back over the 2010s from my limited vantage, the highs and lows that stand out for me keep flickering as pictures in my mind. I see poetry and heroism in some pictures... and sadly, way too many of farce.

Common ground can be hard to find in South Africa. People disagree more when they don’t understand each other. In highly unequal societies, misunderstanding thrives.


But I suspect there is near unanimity among South Africans on one question about their country: its best year of the decade.

Mention “2010” in any conversation, a long rhapsody follows. There was no crime or xenophobia. Lights stayed on. Seven rand got you a dollar. Mandela appeared in public, lucent and regal, one last time.

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With the world’s gaze fixed on South Africa because of a football tournament, anything could go wrong. Nothing did. At least that’s how 2010 has grown in myth and memory.

I moved to South Africa in January of that year. Then it was (just) possible to believe that corruption was “isolated”. President Jacob Zuma and his cronies were gnawing on the state, not yet gorging. The hope and bonhomie stirred by the World Cup helped veil their crimes. One felt lucky to be in Mzansi.

As the decade rolled on, much less so. To know 2010 is to know what might have been, to have contemplated another future for the country: confident, productive, less fraught. Better not to have glimpsed it at all? The decade might seem less grey, in retrospect.

For writers everywhere, a decade’s end is the time to shoehorn the past 10 years – events, people, movements – into one theme. Almost all such attempts are instantly forgettable. A rare exception is Tom Wolfe’s description of 1970s America as the “Me Decade”. Famously coined just halfway through it, Wolfe’s unsparing attack on the individualism and self-indulgence he saw in young Americans caught on globally.

Good luck to anyone trying to distil “2010s South Africa” into a single theme, which resonates from one community to the next. The divides in education, income and geography strike me as too vast for any generalisation to get traction.

What came to be known over the decade as State Capture was gravely consequential for the country’s political economy. But for most South Africans, it hardly defined their lives. Nor did it shift their core beliefs and attitudes. By the crude measure of voting patterns in national elections from 2009 to 2019, little seems to have changed in people’s minds.

The spirit of ke nako – “it’s time” for South Africa and Africa, the affecting slogan of the World Cup – receded faster than expected. Dozens of books tried to explain why. Often, it felt like analysis-paralysis. But one thing seemed incontestable: nation-building was at a low ebb.

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Some have argued that the decade’s central motif was “crisis”. The term is woolly and – given South Africa’s brutal past – ahistorical. Otherwise, they have a point. From around 2012, if not earlier, one was reminded in every article, every conference: South Africa was “on the precipice”. The meaning of “crisis” became less potent the longer the country stayed there; it was normalised, or banalised in academic-speak. There we remain.

Looking back over the decade from my limited vantage, the highs and lows that stand out for me keep flickering as pictures in my mind. I am overly disposed to this kind of reflection. The result of long months in London spent on photographic histories of both the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.

Personally, I see poetry and heroism in some pictures – real or imagined – though there are not nearly enough of them from the past 10 years. Sadly, there are way too many of farce. In their own way, each reveal something apt of the times South Africa is passing through. To my thinking, at least.


The first, poetry, had been scarce until the Springboks’ World Cup triumph last month. In seeing captain Siya Kolisi holding that trophy aloft, there is a seemingly perfect confluence of the personal, racial and national. Long may it hold.

Even then, nothing to rival the moment in early 2013 when the North West province’s police commissioner, Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo, received a suspicious-looking package, with wires protruding out, one morning. She called the sniffer dogs in. One smelt something iffy. The package was duly blown up by the bomb squad.

How long after the debris was inspected did someone conclude that the package was the garishly-filled goodie-box-cum-invitation to the infamous Gupta wedding at Sun City, who knows.

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It might just as well have been a bomb. The Gupta brothers were then busy blowing up parts of South Africa’s democracy by various means licensed under President Zuma. An invite to the police chief responsible for Sun City – to elicit her cooperation for this or that – was in the same breathtakingly cynical vein as everything the Guptas did before fleeing to Dubai.

The story of Mbombo’s detonated wedding invitation was amusing but scarcely reported at the time. In hindsight, it is pure poetry.


As for farce, the 2010s offered an embarrassment of riches. An elusive shebeen in Saxonwold; Sopranos 2.0 courtesy of Angelo Agrizzi; Helen Zille’s Singapore obsession; the fire-pool. Journalist Sam Mkokeli’s brief, tragicomic encounter in 2015 with then Communications Minister Faith Muthambi – who in Mkokeli’s account seemed surprised that he knew how to type, before feigning deafness when he asked her a simple question – still floors me. His bafflement that “such a visibly undercooked person could rise to cabinet level” spoke for millions.

Yet, more tellingly absurd was the ANC’s 104th anniversary party in Rustenburg in early January 2016.

There may be an explanation why marking 104 – or say 107 – years with a huge celebration is justified. But I’ve no interest in knowing. More intriguing: was the spelling mistake on the gigantic ANC “ANNIVESARY” cake a genuine error or sabotage? (To be fair, it was the biggest of the five words on the cake.) And after the missing letter was noticed, whose pre-schooler scribbled in what almost passes for an “R”?

Of course, what made this scene painfully farcical was the man at the heart of it, Zuma. Less than a month earlier, he had suddenly fired the country’s respected finance minister for refusing to endorse a nuclear deal with Russia that might have cost South Africa 90% of its budget. About 150,000 jobs and just over 1% of the nation’s GDP (by the end of 2017) are estimated to have been lost due to the saga, dubbed “Nenegate”.

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The nation’s president, exuberant and smug, his top allies huddled close on his left and right while thousands cheered in front of him, wielding a knife over a bungled 104th birthday cake.

Metaphors don’t come any balder.


By rights, a politician and a lawyer should not occupy much space in my recollection of the decade’s best. Most of the country’s real heroes toiled uncelebrated and unreported in disadvantaged communities. And all of us would be poorer were it not for the fearlessness of many activists and journalists.

My only defence in singling them out is that they were, to my mind, the most formidable adversaries of the man who may forever haunt South Africa’s democratic progress.

During her time as public protector, Thuli Madonsela issued many investigative reports. Friends who know about such things tell me they were not always legally sound. Even as a non-expert, it was obvious that some were shoddily compiled. Her State Capture report was poorly written and cited Wikipedia, without even referencing which pages. In the longue durée, none of this will matter.

Only now is the true scale of Madonsela’s contribution becoming apparent. One can but stand in awe at her courage and integrity. If she had buckled under the unremitting abuse and threats, gone easier on the president who appointed her, where might South Africa be now? No serious person doubts that Madonsela knew exactly what she was doing in ensuring her final report was completed and released before leaving office. Left to her Janus-faced successor, Judge Raymond Zondo would now almost certainly have more time on his hands.

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So, when I think of the decade’s heroes, I imagine a resolute Madonsela cornering Zuma in that room on 6 October 2016, having told his patronising lawyer to shut up and let her do her job.

A tall woman in the company of small men.

Pravin Gordhan was a close comrade of Zuma from way back. In the past, he has been a key part of some inept administrations. Today, the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) under his watch are a mess. Many long-time supporters of Gordhan argue that, today, he is not the right person to turn them around.

But in the most perilous year for the new South Africa, he did as much to save the country from disaster as Madonsela. As the finance minister forced on Zuma after “Nenegate”, Gordhan was the noble foil to the ruling cabal, acting in the national interest when everyone around him seemed focused on their own. He held the line on the country’s finances for as long as he could. When security officials contrived a bogus pretext for Zuma to, eventually, fire him at the end of March 2017, half of the all-powerful “top six” broke publicly with the president’s decision. Something of an earthquake, by ANC standards.

If I had to pick just one remarkable scene of the decade in my mind – which I actually witnessed – it would be Gordhan’s appearance at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering in June 2016. Before hundreds of delegates, in the middle of a routine interview, he was asked about some spurious charges against him. When the usually unflappable minister tried to shrug them off, the pressure got to him. Gordhan fell silent. Into the void, within a second or two, came the entire audience’s loud applause. It was instinctive and magical. We all knew.

The lachrymose effect of that moment on all of us in that auditorium suggests, perhaps, that the next decade could be better than the one coming to an end. There was not much unity of feeling or purpose on display in the 2010s. Rotten politics did its best to crush that sense of linked fate, which was so instrumental in South Africa’s transition to democracy. When it burst into life in that auditorium, emotions ran over because it had been so sorely missed. At least that’s how I will remember that moment.


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Sarajevo played host to the 1984 Winter Olympics. In what was then sports-mad Yugoslavia, the event seized people’s imagination in a way not dissimilar to the effect the 2010 World Cup had on South Africans. The impression of a country coming together, showing its best side to the world.

In the case of Yugoslavia, the myth exploded at the start of the next decade, when the country violently came apart. South Africa is not on the edge of war. But plenty of people say it is fraying badly. As the 2020s near, it is worth recalling what made 2010 great. And how those myths might be preserved. DM

Terence McNamee is the writer and historian of CENTURY: One Hundred Years of Human Progress, Regression, Suffering and Hope (edited and conceived by Bruce Bernard), which won the 2000 British Book Awards, and, with Anna Rader and Adrian Johnson, DECADE: Transition and Turmoil (edited by Eamonn McCabe), both published by Phaidon. He is a Global Fellow of the Wilson Centre, based in Johannesburg.


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