Apocalypse now: some thoughts on the current situation in South Africa
Jul 2021

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Dave reflects on the current apocalypse unfolding in South Africa.

“And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres.”
Colonel Walter E. Kurtz: Apocalypse Now

I stare at my computer in sheer disbelief – image after image appears of rampant destruction, mayhem and death, in real time. And the very first thought that arises is whether these frenzied plunderers have any form of conscience, any context of the large stone that they have thrown into the pond, the pond being the living fibers South Africa. There can be only one answer; no. What we are dealing with here is chaos.

By definition: “Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos — dynamical systems whose apparently random states of disorder and irregularities are actually governed by underlying patterns and deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. To ordinary citizens, and here I include myself, the sheer mathematical complexity of chaos is impenetrable, but, we have graphic representations that might shed some light on this complexity. It took the genius of Benoit Mandelbrot to visualise chaos, in the ravishing form of his celebrated Mandelbrot Sets. Like cosmic nebulae they seem to hang in empty space; optical illusions to infinity.

Mandelbrot set. Pic: WikiMedia Commons

But there is a caveat: zoom in on these magical mirages, and you will find two fascinating phenomena – the heart of this condition is stable, but at the edges, there is endless mirrored patters, which, at the very edges of these sets, are highly sensitive to disturbance. In ecology, this is known as the butterfly effect. Slowly it becomes clear that stable systems can be fundamentally changed by small, and at the time, insignificant disturbances.

The very fabric of life in South Africa is being altered, permanently, in clear sight. Emotionally, financially and even ecologically we are experiencing a double whammy, firstly of a deadly pandemic, in concert with a deadly insurrection. I have no training in mathematics or psychology, but as a scientist I think we have a few lessons to learn from this tragedy.

An immigrant spaza shop in Tsakane was stripped bare. In addition to the food stocks, everything was looted, including shelves, fittings and fridges. Photo: Kimberly Mutandiro | GroundUp


We have to accept that chaos exists. There can be no corrective action or progress if we do not accept this fundamental law. By denying the underlying science of this phenomenon, we will simply retard the inevitable recovery, and even worse, retard recovery


Accept the simple rule that one thing will always lead to another. By being sober and calm, our collective composure will have salutary results, although, at the moment the outlook is bleak.


We must use this difficult time to deeply contemplate the issues that are really important, such as, for instance, the terrifying unequal distribution of wealth in this country, and design positive feedback loops to empower those that want to help themselves.


This tragedy offers lucid thinkers prospects to become creative. See this problem as a field of opportunities.


We are in this mess together. It is easy to hate, easy to point fingers, but once the person that you point at has a name, a family, hopes and fears, our thinking will change. This is exactly what the President did when, at great length, he named the dead.

I stand corrected, and will apologise if I am wrong, but now is the time in this beautiful country’s history to form a groundswell of goodwill, in stead of blaming, hatred and remorse. I shall end with one of the most beautiful and true statements on hope, and that of my favourite science writer, Stephen Jay Gould:

“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”


  • Feature photo: artist’s impression of an apocalypse: Pixabay
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