by Piet Coetzer

Managing a revolution

What the Marikana Mine disaster tells us about South African politics

French Revolution
French revolution.JPG
The events at Marikana, where unrest surrounding the Lonmin mine has already claimed at least 45 lives, are likely to be described as a defining moment in the history of post-apartheid South Africa. Marikana should be seen within the context that the country has been managing a social/political revolution since the early 1990s. 

The way in which the country has succeeded -- peacefully and without major disruptions to the economy and the social fabric of society -- in managing the first phase of the revolution earned it the reputation of being exceptional. This was achieved with negotiations and a transfer of power to the representatives of the majority via fully democratic elections in the first phase.

As history has proven over the ages, radical political change has a tendency to be messy, often violent and, almost always, accompanied by major disruptions and upheavals.

Starting with the Jacobin government in the last decade of the 18th century, post-revolutionary governments, more often than not, fail. Post-colonial Africa’s history is strewn with examples of such failures and South Africans only have to look to the immediate north at Zimbabwe for a present-day example.

The management of a revolution is an extremely complicated process, mostly challenged by an expectation gap – to borrow a term from the world of economics. The challenge to close this gap is often, as also happens in South Africa, exacerbated by the progress that is being made. The impatience of those who are still excluded from better living conditions increases as they see their neighbours making progress.

As happened in France during the revolution, while internal popular sentiments radicalise the revolutionary spirit, external economic problems may dangerously frustrate progress. In present-day South Africa this plays out in growth rates well below what is needed and intolerably high unemployment among the most volatile section of the population: the young.

Jacobin France responded to the crisis with what was called the “Reign of Terror”, which was, effectively, a “state of emergency”. That was also the response of the apartheid government during times of socio-political crisis. In neither instance did it work, although in the case of South Africa it might have bought some time to get a negotiated settlement in place.

The postapartheid, ANC-led government, charged with the responsibility of managing the South African revolution, faces its biggest crisis to date. It has just come to the verge of declaring a state of emergency to deal with the Marikana situation. While public order remains one of the main responsibilities of government, unless the opportunity of decreased violence created by state action is used to get a truly broad based and inclusive national dialogue going, these measures are likely to fail.

It is also going to be important to realise that a phenomenon like Julius Malema and his “'”are symptoms of the broader problems and challenges in the country and not the problem per se. If legal steps had been taken against him expeditiously at the time that he was implicated in matters like irregular tender assignments, he might not have been around now to spread his mischief. To grab him now might prove to be counterproductive.

Circumstances now call for cool heads and a holistic, sophisticated approach to the management of the South African revolution from the country’s leaders in all formations of society, above all, from government.

How successful our leadership corps is in managing this new phase of the South African revolution will ultimately determine if we will be able to truly lay claim to having conquered the dream of being exceptional.

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Issue 407


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