When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

The Star is a South African, English-language daily newspaper. It was founded in 1871 and is headquartered in Johannesburg.
President  @CyrilRamaphosa  accompanied by Minister  @MondliGungubele , Minister  @PatriciaDeLille , Deputy Minister  @ZiziKodwa , and Premier  @AlanWinde  as he inspects the damage to the Parliament buildings in Cape Town.
Carl-Johan Karlsson

South African Parliament Fire Raises Deeper Questions About Democracy

It took firefighters nearly three days to extinguish the blaze at the historic building in Cape Town, and the damage will persist as South Africans try to figure out how this happened, and what it says about the country’s struggle to reinforce its young democracy.

That the devastating fire at South Africa’s parliament building broke out in Cape Town on Sunday — one day after anti-apartheid hero Desmond Tutu's funeral was held nearby — only adds to the anguish of a nation struggling to reinforce its democracy nearly three decades after its first free elections.

Since the blaze was finally extinguished for good on Tuesday, South Africans have been debating the ramifications of the fire that tore through the 150-year-old building, laying waste to the wood-paneled assembly where the president makes his annual state-of-the-nation address.

Protest, negligence or crime of opportunity?

Adding to the uncertainty are doubts about the arrest of a 49-year-old unemployed man charged with arson. Zandile Christmas Mafea was arrested at the Parliament complex shortly after the fire was reported. According to prosecutors, Mafe was caught with stolen laptops, documents and crockery, and was charged with arson, theft, possession of explosives and breaking state security laws.

But questions also remain over why the alleged arsonist, who according to his lawyer plans to plead not guilty, would burn down the historic building. Some have pointed to the timing of the fire, occurring just days before the Parliament was to receive a report on corruption under former president Jacob Zuma. But others accuse the government of scapegoating a poor man to distract from its own failure to protect its buildings, with surveillance systems unmonitored and sprinklers said to have been out of commission, Mail & Guardian reports.

Whatever the motivation or narrative, the burning-down of a parliamentary building is bound to have a divisive effect in a country reeling from a long period of socio-economic decline and with a ruling party characterized by internal ideological incoherence.

Faultlines along the road to freedom 

Since its first democratic election in 1994, South Africa has in the last decade drifted further and faster away from the vision of a modern country at peace with itself fought for by the likes of Tutu, who died last week at the age of 90, as well as the winner of that first election, the late Nelson Mandela.

The government’s failure to implement job-intensive growth policies in the first decade of the 21st century sparked popular doubts about the trickledown effect of neo-liberal policies, culminating in a transition of power from Thabo Mbeki to Jacob Zuma in 2009. The shift in leadership ushered in an era of seemingly endless corruption scandals, overspending, reduced private sector autonomy and plunging investor confidence. Last year, South Africa’s official unemployment rate became the highest in the world at more than 44%, and some experts suggest that in the absence of economic reform, the country could be a failed state by 2030.

Let’s put aside the finger-pointing

Today, South Africa is still on edge after a wave of deadly riots last July, and the pandemic has further reduced the working population. As such, the government’s handling of the burning of the parliamentary building — the site of both the promulgation of the apartheid laws as well as their abolishment — is likely to have a disproportionate effect on the population.

In the Daily Maverick, Oscar van Heerden, deputy vice-chancellor at Fort Hare University, suggests that restoring basic trust in the government should start with restoring the building that holds South Africa’s collective heritage: “Let’s put aside the finger-pointing, let’s forget about possible arson plots and let’s just show the nation that, for once, we can get something done competently in the shortest possible time frame.”

Photo of former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk who died yesterday at age 85

De Klerk’s Death: How South Africa Saw Its Last White President

Having shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela, former President Frederik Willem de Klerk was largely credited with courageous leadership and a key role in dismantling apartheid. But his legacy, both before and after the transition, is decidedly mixed.

Mourned, derided, in equal measure…

Since South Africa's last white ruler Frederik Willem de Klerk died at his home in Cape Town on Thursday at the age of 85, the reactions of South Africans have mirrored the contradictions that characterized de Klerk's political life.

De Klerk is widely heralded for his role in dismantling the brutal apartheid state and ushering in the dawn of South Africa's democracy, having shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with Nelson Mandela, who succeeded him as president.

In a statement on Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa labeled his actions "courageous," and celebrated his "decision to unban political parties, release political prisoners and enter into negotiations with the liberation movement amid severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency."

"He became a small man"

But not all reactions were positive. In an article by South African weekly Mail & Guardian, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation acknowledged de Klerk's pivotal part in the country's transition to democracy. But the foundation also chose to repeat the words of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu — another winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — who said before de Klerk's death that he "could have gone down in history as a truly great South African statesman, but he eroded his stature and became a small man, lacking magnanimity and generosity of spirit."

After becoming the leader of the National Party in 1989, F. W. de Klerk was expected to continue the system of racial segregation and repression of dissent of the party — a party that his grandfather helped form in the 1940s.

But instead, on February 2, 1990, at the opening of parliament in Cape Town, de Klerk gave a quantum leap speech that stunned the world: announcing a series of reforms including lifting the ban on the African National Congress. A week later, he sanctioned the release of Mandela, the charismatic freedom fighter with whom de Klerk would negotiate the end of apartheid.

A complicated legacy

The Star Nov. 12 front page

South African daily The Star's Nov. 12 front page

The Star

The pain of apartheid

However, there are many South Africans who will never view de Klerk as the national hero which he has largely become to the international community.

While, As Deputy President from 1994 to 1996, de Klerk played an instrumental role in the Government of National Unity, many still hold he missed the many chances he had to fully reconcile with South Africans. The most glaring example is de Klerk's failure in February 2020 to fully acknowledge the extent of the damage caused by apartheid, telling public broadcaster SABC he felt there weren't enough deaths to qualify it as a crime against humanity, despite it being declared such by the United Nations in 1962.

In a video released by his foundation on the day he died, de Klerk didn't backtrack on the matter, even though he apologized for the "pain" inflicted by apartheid, or what he called in the video "separate development."

Ending apartheid

@eNCA, 11/11/2021

Failing to reconcile

The controversy over de Klerk's death, only weeks before the 25th anniversary of South Africa's democratic constitution, also comes at a time when the risk appears greater than ever that the country's hard-earned progress could be undone.

Already reeling from decades of economic decline and the corruption-plagued rule of Jacob Zuma, South Africa is also suffering the brutal consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, with looting and riots having swept the poverty-stricken country during the summer. In June, as hundreds were killed in a mix of political and protest against structural poverty, President Cyril Ramaphosa called it some of the worst violence witnessed in South Africa since the 1990s.

De Klerk's death is a reminder of both the oppression and liberation of the past, but also the uncertainty of South Africa's future.

A return to the past?

The Citizen's Nov. 12 front page reading "FW's dying words"

The Citizen's Nov. 12 front page

The Citizen