As a teenager, I went through a ‘metal’ phase. That is, for a few months I gunned Iron Maiden records and really wanted to grow a mullet. The fascination wore off, and I suppose I was never more than a poseur metalhead. I still have a couple of albums – and a whole collection of memories.

One of the attractions of Iron Maiden was that its songs explored all sorts of intriguing and taboo topics. Its lyrics were often remarkably sophisticated and could get under your skin. They did with me. And Iron Maiden has, for me, a minor psychological connection to South Africa’s transition. It was music from the 1980s after all, and it invoked a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse.

Others found Iron Maiden uniquely threatening. Its use of horror imagery and its songs about magic and demonology made it a ready foil for many of the charismatic churches that had sprouted up at the time – partly, I think, in response to the unsettled times that South Africa was going through. Iron Maiden was a wonderful, readily available symbol of the insidious influence of pop music. There were, I recall, earnestly repeated claims about devil worship, hidden messages on their records (always praising the Prince of Darkness, never suggesting buying more records), and claims that they had woven demonic influences around their songs.

Reminders of the lekgotla

These thoughts came back to me as I read President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the ANC’s National Executive Committee Lekgotla last week. Specifically, I recalled a track from Iron Maiden’s 1986 album Somewhere in Time, entitled ‘Déjà vu’, a song about the sensation that something is unaccountably familiar, suggesting some sort of psychic impulse or supernatural ability:

When you see familiar faces,
But you don’t remember where they’re from,
Could you be wrong?
When you’ve been particular places,
That you know you’ve never been before,
Can you be sure?
‘Cause you know this has happened before,
And you know that this moment in time is for real,
And you know when you feel déjà vu.

A blaze of drumming and guitar riffing then segues into the chorus powered out with a feel of forlorn desperation by Bruce Dickinson (who is, incidentally, acknowledged as having one of the widest vocal ranges in the British music industry):

Feel like I’ve been here before,
Feel like I’ve been here before.

Familiar faces to be sure. Ramaphosa himself and many of those sitting on the NEC certainly are. With political pedigrees dating back to the time I was air-guitaring to Iron Maiden (and frequently before that), these are a group of people who for the most part were present at the birth of the new democracy, and who have played important roles in what has happened since.

President Ramaphosa was a key figure in COSATU – arguably the most powerful organised force in the liberation alliance before the transition, in which capacity he once told an interviewer that ‘I would never trust any capitalist’ – and went on to preside over the writing of the Constitution. Among his colleagues are plenty of cabinet ministers and senior parliamentary office bearers, some having come to prominence in the halcyon days of Nelson Mandela, more in the years that followed.

Familiar faces too, and in some cases it is very important indeed to remember where they’re from.

Déjà vu

Iron Maiden continues:

Ever had a conversation,
That you realise you’ve had before,
Isn’t it strange?
Have you ever talked to someone,
And you feel you know what’s coming next?

Ah, the conversation. Feel like you’ve been here before? The president pledged to tackle South Africa’s economic malaise, giving its poor and excluded a stake in the economy. ‘Too many of our compatriots are going hungry,’ he said, ‘and we need to develop innovative and agile strategies that respond to the real challenges faced by the people. The Lekgotla confirmed that South Africa’s recovery and reconstruction plan needs to focus on a few priority areas that will catalyse growth, protect businesses and create jobs.’

There it is. Jobs, a familiar refrain. Call it the governance chorus, accompanied by all the requisite power chords and emphatic drumbeats. And rightly so, in the shadow of a catastrophic loss of 2.2 million jobs between April and June this year. Indeed, just last month, the President defined the central indicator task of post-Covid rehabilitation as hinging on this very issue. ‘Our success in responding to this unprecedented crisis will be measured by the speed of our labour market recovery,’ he commented. 

Not that this is new. Been here before. One of the ANC’s signature messages in 1994 was that it would set the country on a new economic course. As the election poster said: ‘Let’s get SA working: jobs, jobs, jobs.’ The Reconstruction and Development Programme (the RDP, the big idea that faded rather like my metal phase) stressed this. A welfare system was important it said, quite sensibly, but what people wanted was productive, wage-earning work.

We never quite got there. South Africa’s unemployment rate remained stubbornly above 20% – one in five South Africans had no work, but wanted it and were looking for it.

Labour absorption low

More revealingly, South Africa’s labour absorption rate over the past two decades has stood at well under 50% – it dropped somewhat, from 45.8% in 2001 to 42.4% in 2019 (and crashed through to 36.3% this year, under the added weight of the pandemic and the measures taken to combat it). This means that less than half the working-age population, and now only about one third, was at work. Frightening stuff.

Successive administrations have pledged to deal with this. In his June 1999 State of the Nation Address, newly-sworn-in President Thabo Mbeki said: ‘The Government will continue to give priority to the issue of job creation. If perceptions or realities influence the process negatively, these must be addressed.’

Much the same was expressed in the last SONA he delivered, in early 2008, when he spoke of ‘accelerating our advance towards the attainment of such objectives as the reduction of unemployment’. When Mbeki entered office in 1999, the unemployment rate stood at some 23.3%, and the number of unemployed at around 3.2 million. In 2008, the unemployment rate stood at 22.6%, accounting for some 4.3 million people. Here it must be said in fairness, Mbeki’s tenure did see some dent being made in unemployment off the back of good fiscal management, strong growth and a fortuitous international environment. But it was never enough, and employment would remain a persistent weakness.

Feel like I’ve been here before,
Feel like I’ve been here before.

Rise in unemployment under Zuma

And if you have the feeling that you know what’s coming next, you may be correct. President Zuma’s administration took up the idea of ‘decent jobs’. This would, Zuma said shortly after his inauguration, be ‘at the centre of our economic policies and will influence our investment attraction and job-creation initiatives.’ In the year he made this declaration, the country’s official unemployment stood at 23.2%, the number of unemployed at around 4.3 million people. In the last full year of his presidency, the rate had risen to 27.2% and the ranks of the unemployed had grown to 6.1 million.

In the early months of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, President Ramaphosa was promising renewed measures to tackle joblessness, particularly among the youth. Now the issue needed to be understood within the context of the wasted years (though surprisingly unremarked-on were the familiar faces from those years now occupying high office). In his February SONA, he said: ‘We are confronted by the crisis of youth unemployment. Of the 1.2 million young people who enter the labour market each year, approximately two thirds remain outside of employment, education and training. More than half of all young people are unemployed. This is a crisis. We need to make this country work for young people, so that they can work for our country. The solution to this crisis must be two-pronged – we must all create opportunities for youth employment and self-employment.’

He spoke of the need to get growth going (in 2018, GDP growth was at 0.8%, and in 2019, it managed a paltry 0.2%, dismal even by the standards of South Africa established in the ‘lost decade’), and to ‘fix the fundamentals’.  By then, the unemployment rate was 30.1% and the number of unemployed at 7.1 million.

It feels pre-arranged.
‘Cause you know that you’ve heard it before,
And you feel that this moment in time is surreal,
‘Cause you know when you feel déjà vu.

Perhaps the most noteworthy expression of déjà vu is not the handwringing about joblessness, but the seeming refusal to make any bold moves to change the dynamics so as actually to incentivise job creation. Jobs are, after all, a fortunate consequence of entrepreneurs seizing opportunities to make a profit.

So, when President Ramaphosa speaks about dealing with crime and corruption, about the environment for small business, and about the developmental state, well, you’ve heard it all before. And for that reason, it may indeed come across as surreal.

The problem of crime

Crime and corruption have bedevilled South Africa for decades. And until law enforcement is thoroughly professionalised and properly equipped for its role, it’s hard to see this changing. (Opinion polls suggest that the police service is one of the least trusted institutions in the country.)

And keep those faces in mind. Tony Yengeni for example. The image of him being given a hero’s send-off to prison on fraud charges is one that should provoke a great deal of uncomfortable déjà vu (let it not be forgotten that in 2018 he was appointed to head the party’s crime and corruption committee).

True enough, there have been some arrests recently, though this is not without precedent. Hope that this may this be the start of something great, certainly, but the obstacles loom large. Our colleagues at the Centre for Risk Analysis calculate that more than half the ANC’s NEC members face corruption allegations serious enough to warrant sentences of 15 years or more.

Small business as a driver of growth

Small business has been hailed as South Africa’s great wealth creator and employment generator, not since 1994, but since the 1980s, when the National Party belatedly pretended to recognise the benefits of a market economy. Every administration and economic plan since then has pledged ‘reform’ to help small businesses succeed, and each has failed to act on it. Minister Pravin Gordhan once correctly said that the government had been ‘pathetic’ on helping small business.

Much of this stems from a refusal to consider seriously the need to change tack on key political and ideological commitments, labour legislation being a prime example. President Ramaphosa has voiced the familiar refrains on small business – and, in flat contradiction of his stated aim of helping small business, promised to ratchet up labour and empowerment pressure.

On top of this, the investment-killing idea of Expropriation without Compensation and the constitutional tampering it embodies remains alive. It all feels pre-arranged.

Feel like I’ve been here before,
Feel like I’ve been here before.

‘The Lekgotla affirmed the role of a capable, ethical developmental state in implementing the economic reconstruction, growth and transformation plan. In particular the ability of the state to plan and to implement in a coherent and integrated manner across the three spheres of government.’

The ANC committed itself to a ‘developmental state’ in 2005, although the cardinal features of this idea – a mighty, interventionist state powering growth, dispensing upliftment, and reordering society – has a much longer pedigree in its thinking. It’s a nonsense and always has been, since the ruling party has missed that the key point for such institutions is to be competent and technically adept, while being able to negotiate forcefully and productively with its ‘social partners’, but not be dominated by any of them.

The folly of cadre deployment

Whatever chances there were for this to succeed were squandered in the 1990s when the ANC took a deliberate decision to politicise the civil service. It probably did more damage than outright, venal corruption – though it’s an odious comparison and the two practices would always feed off each other. The situation many of the country’s state-owned enterprises and much of its municipal governance find themselves in is in large part a consequence.

But the song remains the same on this. ‘Strengthening and renewal of the ANC therefore remains an absolute priority; and a precondition for the deployment of capable cadres as public representatives and in the state.’ In other words, these toxic practices will continue, but will be done better. You know that you’ve heard it before. And there is a certain occult thinking here, almost as if by the correct invocations and incantations, reality can be adjusted, and the logical order of things reconfigured. One senses no appetite to ‘fix the fundamentals’, just to wish them to align.

Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time album was followed in 1988 by Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. I always thought there was something deeply mystical about it. The title track was based around a concept in folklore of the special paranormal abilities bestowed on a particular member of a family lineage. Good and evil fight for possession of the child and his power. It was accompanied by ‘Infinite Dreams’, ‘Can I Play With Madness’, ‘The Prophecy’ and ‘The Clairvoyant’, all of which recount stories of impending doom, conundrums about whether glimpses of the future could be used to prevent it.

I think of that now. Déjà vu is probably less frightening than the sensation that something untoward is approaching. That we know it to be approaching but fail to act. Or when we are wilfully blind to the threats that loom. ‘The Clairvoyant’:

Just by looking through your eyes
He could see the future penetrating right
In through your mind
See the truth and see your lies
But for all his power couldn’t foresee his own demise

Or when warnings go unheeded. Or when those warning are dismissed. Words from ‘The Prophecy’:

Now that they see the disaster is done
Now they put all the blame on to me
They feel I brought on a curse
Don’t they know that the torment it stays with me?
Knowing that I walk alone
Through the eyes of the future, I see
They don’t even know what fear is
Don’t they know I’m the one who is cursed?

Ominous words that echo today.

But Iron Maiden are, of course, musicians and entertainers at root. That they have been around for nearly half a century is testimony to their talent, their theatrical stagecraft and savvy marketing. They have managed to maintain brand continuity with evolving tastes and styles, and the occasional turnover of band members. Their story is quite prosaic when measured against the urban legends of occult connections and pacts with the devil. (And as it turned out, drummer Nicko McBain ended up as a fixture in his local church.)

And maybe that’s the bigger lesson for South Africa. The country’s success or failure depends on elevating the manner in which politics and government are practised. There is no arcane secret here. Implement prudent policies. Listen to the evidence. Adjust and innovate. Back down from bad ideas, however fondly the ideologues may hold them. For decades, critics have been offering alternatives, while the government and the ANC bemoan the country’s failure to achieve the economic and employment acceleration South Africa so desperately needs.

But we’ve heard this all before…

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Terence Corrigan
Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.


  1. I am so glad I was not one of those that agreed to hand the country over to a bunch of thugs.
    Those who did remember as you sow, so shall you reap.

    And I will gladly take the expected vitriol.

    • I was also a Bittereinder back then John and subsequent events post ’94 have proven both of us to have been spot on in our instincts.
      I also have a ‘subsequent events’ feeling about Senekal as well, this movie has played before and it has a similarly sad ending I’m afraid.

  2. One of the best written and factually impactful articles I have ever come across. Brilliant counterpoint with Iron Maiden lyrics. And unfortunately the looming disaster is only too real.

  3. Absolutely spot on!!
    I was never a fan of “Iron Maiden”. I was more with Rodriguez. It does not matter how you spin things or give them fancy names or project titles etc. Because… ” a monkey in silk is a monkey no less”

  4. I have always thought the concept of “unemployment rate” often misrepresents a lot more than it explains. We already have the anomaly that those who have given up looking are not included in the stats. But we also have the situation that there are a huge pile of people who are “employed” in jobs which have no productive role. So the obvious ones are those in our bloated govt bureaucracy (about 400000 too many). But also what about the petrol pump attendants (about 75000), bottle store assistants (about 100000) and then the security personnel that wouldn’t need to be pay-rolled if our police maybe did their jobs properly (perhaps 200000)? Farm workers as well – a tractor or combine harvester does way more than a whole truckload of people and doesn’t get hangovers. And domestics: in Europe one hardworking char does probably 12+ apartments a week. So many more examples, they probably add up to almost 2 million people who would not be employed in a place like the US or UK because of the way in which a functioning system works. So if you do the math, our real unemployment rate is perhaps somewhere around 55% and skilled people remain scarce!
    But of course the ANC knows how to deal with this. Jacob Zuma in 2011 said he would create 5 million jobs, all you need to do is spend billions and voila, you have it. And when you get nowhere with your billions blown away, just increase the grants so they can act like they are employed. All our tax money down the tubes, together with all the rates, license fees, subsidies, tolls, ppe’s, corruption and crime proceeds to boot. Enjoy the weather, at least they cant steal it from us, at least until the next lockdown.

  5. The problem with democracy is that millions with little or no education, and less knowledge or even understanding have the same vote as the absolute minority who pay the taxes. The sooner society learns that the greatest fallacy in the world today is that all people are equal. They are not, and as a great Russian writer said, the moment that you try to assume that everyone is equal, you remove their freedom from them because of a system that is created.


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