When we look back in years to come, will we lament the lost opportunities, or be grateful that we averted a disaster?

Previously, I wrote about the literary genre of future history, and how South Africa had been represented in a genre in which writers imagined the national trajectory from the viewpoint of a future historian.

A close cousin of this genre is ‘alternate history’ (also sometimes called ‘counterfactual’). In this genre, a writer will imagine how history would change if an event or decision differed from what actually occurred. Probably the most common scenarios in alternate history are those that take as a starting point the Nazis winning the Second World War. There are heaps of books on this topic, ranging from Fatherland by Robert Harris and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick to Making History by Stephen Fry. Of course, this is not the only scenario people have considered. A Confederate victory in the American Civil War is also a popular one visited by alternate historians. 

The 1960s provides a great number of possible points of divergence (or PODs as alternate history nerds are wont to call them). What if, in that decade, Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet had missed or only injured Jack Kennedy instead of killing him? Or what if the Cuban Missile Crisis had escalated into an all-out war between the United States and Soviet Union? Or what if Kennedy’s brother, Robert, had also survived the attempt on his life, and become the nominee for the Democratic Party in the 1968 American Presidential election? How would American politics have turned out differently? Or more recently, what if those hanging chads had been counted for Al Gore in Florida in 2000 and he had beaten George W Bush in that year’s American Presidential election?

Of course, American history is not alone in offering interesting PODs. What if the Spanish Armada had managed to make it to Britain and conquered that country? Or if the Moors had not been forced out of the Iberian Peninsula? World history would look completely different today. 

South Africa is also replete with PODs (or ‘Jonbar hinges’ to give them their even more nerdish name). There are many points at which South African history could have swung in a very different direction had other choices been made or paths chosen.

What, for example, might have transpired had the Dutch not decided to establish a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652? Perhaps the Portuguese would have claimed the Fairest Cape, with South Africa ultimately becoming some sort of Brazil analogue. Or what if Lord Carnarvon’s Confederation Scheme of the mid-19th century had been successful? The Union of South Africa, or a version of it, might have arrived about sixty years ahead of schedule, changing the history of our region significantly.

More recently, how would things have turned out had Southern Rhodesia voted to join the Union in 1922, instead of plumping for responsible government? Or what if the Parliamentary vote Jan Smuts narrowly won in September 1939 had gone the other way, and South Africa had decided to remain neutral in the Allies’ struggle against Nazi Germany?

And of course, there is the great POD of 1948 – what if Jan Smuts and his United Party had won the 1948 election, instead of losing it to the National Party of DF Malan? Would South Africa have slowly reformed and extended full rights to everyone, or would some form of apartheid have been inevitable?

And our more recent history is also full of possible PODs – the Inkatha Freedom Party remaining intransigent in 1994 and deciding not to participate in the first inclusive election, say, or Constand Viljoen going down the same path and thus not bringing the white right into the political system in the form of the Freedom Front.

More recently, a POD to think about is Jacob Zuma’s accession to the presidency. If Thabo Mbeki had selected a different running mate in 1997, rather than Zuma, the latter would not have had the springboard to launch himself to the highest office in the land ten years later. Linked to this, what if Mosiuoa Lekota’s Congress of the People had not succumbed to infighting after 2009? A growing, centrist and non-racial opposition to the ANC, with struggle credentials, could have had a profound effect on our politics. And finally, and most recently, what if David Mabuza had not hitched his Mpumalanga wagon to Cyril Ramaphosa’s horse at Nasrec in 2017? Jacob Zuma would probably have carried on as President until very recently, with all that that would have entailed, and it is very likely that the ANC would have suffered its first defeat at the national polls.

But what does this tell us? It tells us that every decision we make as a nation, or that is made by our leading politicians, is an important one. Some of these decisions (such as the white electorate’s voting the National Party into power in 1948) had disastrous consequences. Others (such as the decisions by Viljoen and Buthelezi to participate in the 1994 election, conceivably averting civil war) guaranteed a much more positive outcome.

On 8 May, voters once again gave the ANC a mandate to run South Africa for the next five years. There are likely to be a number of PODs in these next five years. But one day we will look back at the decisions still to be made over the next five years and think either ‘What might have been…?’, or ‘That could have been a disaster!’ 

The only thing that is certain is that South Africans would do well to buckle their seatbelts. We’re in for a wild couple of years.

Marius Roodt is the Head of Campaigns of the IRR.

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Marius Roodt
Marius Roodt is currently Head of Campaigns at the IRR. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.


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