Hard right wingers brandishing shotguns and handguns storm a pivotal meeting of state officials. The mob smash up the place, ram an armoured vehicle into the glass building, and daub graffiti on walls in a 2-hour reckless spree as officials clear the debating chamber to lock themselves away fearing for their lives.
No, this isn’t the 6th January 2012. Not even the oft-cited August 24, 1814 when the ‘British stormed our Capitol and set fire to it” explained passionately by US Senator Cory Booker talking on the senate floor on the 6th.
This was the 25th June 1993 in South Africa where I was based as a reporter covering its historic transition.
Yesterday’s events bear a chilling similarity with constitutional talks talks in 1993 in South Africa; talks for an election and inevitable transfer of power; talks towards and election which would end the white supremacist regime of sanctioned racism — Apartheid (watch insert video).
Just as the 6th of Dec on the 25th June police back off, do little to stop the assaults or arrest those culpable. The rioters shout “No to socialist slavery” roaming corridors eventually occupying the central chamber. The government-in-waiting to be elected, the ANC, called it “a full, frontal attack on the most basic principles of democracy”.
Yesterday’s scenes in the US brought back immediate and ominous memories. No one was killed in 1993, it was reported. However the ANC’s leader Nelson Mandela’s comments that if the demonstrators were black, ‘hundreds of people would have been shot and killed on the spot’, drew parallels with the present.
Yesterday after US democracy suffered a severe blow and the spectre of theatrical accountability kicks off, officials guarding the US’s constitution need to keep in mind South Africa. Why?
After storming the talks, whilst the airwaves were thick with analysis, the lack of arrests led to organisers being able to regroup and forge new plans.
Then this the unthinkable happens months later on the eve of the country’s historic election a bomb is detonated in Johannesburg city centre. Its force is such that it can be felt a mile away, shaking the house I live in in Yeoville. At the time I was an Associate producer for ABC News and freelance reporter for the BBC World Service and Caribbean reports.
I would go live on the air for the BBC World Service to describe events.
As I’m watching events unfold in the US, I’m thinking of the more immediate analogies in South Africa. If knowledge can be accrued from scenario planning and trend extrapolations then the US’s next problem isn’t a rerun of yesterday in the Capitol, though that’s being addressed with high fence walls.
The US’s potential problem is in the unspeakable ahead in several targets. It’s in those who had it in them to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer; those militia documented on Channel 4 News’ film preparing for civil war; those whose privilege gives them a self-proclaimed license to do anything.
Four years ago
Like many I too reported on the election of Trump in 2016 on one my posts that would be widely accessed. I squared some of the responsibility at the feet of the media, stating the following why it was an epic fail.
As a journalist and more so a social scientist there are many reasons you could attribute to the failure of traditional media.
Treating Trump as entertainment.
Journalists being misdirected and as such concentrating on values that were about character, rather than issues relating to jobs and the economy.
Print journalism has been in decline and so it was inevitable that journalists couldn’t cover wider issues in depth.
Data analyst and pollsters got it wrong. If you’re an ethnographer, you’ll have lots to say here. I have a double whammy, I grew up on data completing a degree in Chemistry and Mathematics.
In effect, media coverage at first favoured the president’s entertainment value. A radical revamp in news to emphasise education and media literacy — a deep problem in journalism — instead gave way largely policy-wonk TV.
Those talking heads usurped on-the -ground reportage. And when field reports are produced, they attempt a feat which is difficult and of another age. In trying to squeeze in politics into 2-minute reports, complex issues lack nuance, become binary and reliant on stereotypes and conventions.
Consumers switch off. It’s small wonder that when the BBC’s Clive Myrie reported from the US, it was roundly praised. His reports were nuanced, came from heartlands TV News does not cover, and were beyond 2 minutes..
The diminishing presence of local journalism has not been helpful. It’s created a vacuum in which Facebook-filtered bubble-news has taken over. Local people have become more reliant on social media feeds, which is less accountable to local politics ‘objective’ coverage.
South Africa’s road map for the present?
Like the US, in South Africa right wing extremists played a role in its destabilisation and whilst the law was enforced to keep law and order, South Africa took a revolutionary route to heal its racist past.
It set up truth and reconciliation hearings where those who had committed political crimes, if they spoke openly and honestly and were contrite without holding anything back under oath they could avoid incarceration.
It benefited people like Dirk Coetzee who headed up a shadowy police unit targeting and assassinating Black and liberals who got in the way of the apartheid government.
This was my extraordinary interview with him, armed with his concealed Glock and four body guards around him as he states: “We were God on its own. We decided who was going to live and who was going to die”.
Could the Biden administration be considering some kind of nation-healing apparatus? Alarmingly, many years later significant ‘Born frees’ — the generation born after apartheid — would suggest Mandela should have been tougher.
Like South Africa, the US enters a major transition with a significant number of people who once ruled by dint of their whiteness now having that privilege removed. In South Africa many white Afrikaan professionals saw the pending government in the ANC as a socialist one that would ruin the economy. That did not pass.
In the US, the immediate attention is in the coming days before their transition. It may turn out to be a lengthy one.