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We are all Ukraine – South African history’s next chapter, Unravelling of a Special Type


Dr Michael Kahn is Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

To halt South Africa’s unravelling will require boldness, vision and sacrifice. Our current trajectory exemplifies the runaway train on which a segment of the majority engages the free market, even as others follow behind, tearing up the tracks and stealing the cables.

In his book Black Earth, Timothy Snyder writes of the history of Ukraine and why the Holocaust took off in that country. He argues that her double occupation between 1923 and 1941, first by Bolsheviks and then Nazis, unleashed new political, psychological and material resources that the Nazis then used to institute mass murder.

Both occupations began with the claim that Ukraine did not exist as a state; today Moscow rejects the idea of Ukraine as a nation state. The massacres at Bucha and Mariupol (mostly of non-Russians) echo previous occupations, and have been denounced as genocidal.

Snyder’s analysis raises questions for polities that have experienced violent occupation. Is the rump state that followed our “Colonialism of a Special Type” exceptional? Some argue that such violence couldn’t happen here; the centre always holds. Yet we endure daily violence punctuated by extreme events – city centres trashed, police and army mutinies, the Marikana Massacre, the July 2021 insurrection, land invasions, State Capture, “Fallism”, and lately the anti-immigrant Dudula movement.

Many of those who committed their lives to “the Struggle” feel betrayed, even as others who were children under apartheid clamour for violent redistribution. Economists and commentators proffer analysis: all we need is structural reform, that’s all.

What is meant by structural reform is never explained. Does it mean expropriation, racial limitation of rights, expulsion of all foreigners, nationalisation, privatisation, adjustment of borders, workers’ control, abolition of chieftaincy, political appointees on all boards, further deregulation?

In the beginning, there was contact with “the other”, followed by settler colonialism which destroyed the institutions of the indigenous peoples. With time, the settlers became labour brokers for capitalist exploitation that denied access by the majority to the market economy.

Colonialism of a Special Type victimised the majority, even as it spawned collaborators – clerks, police, soldiers, teachers, preachers, journalists, lawyers, chiefs and politicians – many of whom were avowedly middle class. And the minority needed the labour-power of the majority, and it was bad.

Dutch, British, Boer and a final British expansion constituted the first occupation, leading to the accommodation of 1910. ANC rule commenced with the 1994 accommodation, which ushered in Constitutional Democracy of a Special Type.

The new freedoms saw a second, now internal, occupation that was enabled by newly available political, psychological and material resources. And the majority needed the skills of the minority and it was supposed to be good.

So, long live the new labour brokers, long live, and be happy the coal, oil, taxi and trucker barons. Just ask yourself, dear Mavericki, who now owns Teba, the mine-labour recruiting organisation? This shift in ownership exemplifies the runaway train on which a segment of the majority engages the free market, even as others follow behind, tearing up the tracks and stealing the cables.

This is not vandalism, it is the same theft that demolishes a school during the Christmas break and spirits away the bricks, window frames, sanitaryware and office equipment. Redistribution by stealth.

To the Snyder framework. The political resource manifests in the Tripartite Alliance re-engineering of the state as a cash cow tethered by endless lawfare, un-minded by the security services, and under attack as illegitimate. To every pot its predator might be an appropriate epithet. Destruction of public institutions is a work in progress, facilitated by top management consultancies.

The psychological resource was released in the early years of Thabo Mbeki’s power, as his beautiful prose poem “I am an African” segued into the latent nativism of the 1912 Native National Congress.

Within weeks of its elocution, a new form of job reservation unfolded. Rather a post remain vacant than the seat be filled by a non-African. Few in the party’s top rank opposed this. Mosiuoa Lekota was an exception. The psychological resource exploits anger and resentment, by identifying “others” as responsible for present failure. Hence July 2021, and now xenophobia.

If you do not hear me, I rebel. And if you legitimise my rebellion with the language of victimhood, anything goes. In the past, I was a collaborator, but now I am among the victims. Perceived wrongs become riots, and the danger of non-state enforcers lurks in the wings. To whom is the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association answerable? The July mayhem goes unpunished. And our very own Reichstag moment?

Finally is the material resource as embodied in exploitation of the Wild Coast or St Lucia wetlands, powerships, oil stocks past their shelf life, the displacement of incumbents from established value chains (Optimum Coal), even their destruction, the insertion of the politically connected into state tenders, and the legalisation of theft.

It took maybe 15 years for Eskom to decline from its first-world status, even as its staff became the highest-paid electricians in the world. Power to the people, no way. And yet again a commodity boom bails out the fiscus. Maybe import substitution will be our saviour, maybe not. Or will our own version of market Leninism take us to the promised land of a better life for all?

Deadly accumulation took form after 1994, with the destruction of intelligence agencies and policing, the erosion of oversight, and the lubrication of corrupt practice through the transfer of unbridled spending authority to local government level. The horses of korrupsiya bolted.

To halt the unravelling will require boldness, vision and sacrifice. A pay freeze at the top, anyone? Application of the rule of law? Protection of assets? Polygraphing as a requirement for office?

A national dialogue, thorough, thoughtful and truthful, involving Struggle veterans, civil society and business leaders (Michael Spicer, you are missed), and mindful of the lessons of history, is needed.

Present political leadership is granted a holiday pass to Mariupol.  

Disclaimer: Family legend has it that Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich, born 1893 near Kyiv, was a great uncle. Such is history. DM



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  • A searing indictment of what at one time was regarded as the savior organisation for the people of SA … and under Madiba’s non racialism and meritocratic disposition, seemed to be headed that way ! How quickly that vision and mission got turned onto its head ! Now it’s the middle finger to anything ethical or rational, including the author of the article.

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