Our Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock is an internationally recognised symbol which conveys the likelihood that we, as a species, will destroy ourselves with dangerous technologies of our own making.

Maintained since 1947 when the nuclear arms race commenced, by the science and security board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it represents the hypothetical global catastrophe as midnight, and the Bulletin’s opinion as to how close we are to the apocalypse, as a number of minutes to midnight.

It is generally adjusted once a year, after the science and security board has deliberated at length on recent events, and it currently stands at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the closest it has been to midnight since 1953, when America tested its first thermonuclear device in November 1952, and the board moved the clock to two minutes to midnight.

It has moved back and forth 22 times since its inception, and the latest move comes about largely because of Donald Trump’s incendiary response to Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear sabre rattling.

But what of South Africa’s Doomsday Clock? When did it start, and where is it today, and why?

If we are to track our Doomsday Clock, it ought to be from the time when the clock moved significantly back from midnight, when, on February 2 1990, then President FW De Klerk stood up in Parliament and announced the unbanning of the ANC, the SACP and the PAC, and the mass release of political prisoners.

In an instant, from staring into the abyss at our feet, we stepped back, and foresaw a future of hope and possibility.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not – this came to pass the year after the Berlin Wall fell, when the global Doomsday Clock was set back to 10 minutes to midnight, and the following year, to 17 minutes to midnight, after America and the Soviet Union signed the first strategic arms reduction treaty, the furthest from midnight the clock has been since 1947.

In many ways, our Doomsday Clock has tracked the global one, with the release of Nelson Mandela on February 11 1990, but with terrifying and uplifting vaccilations in subsequent years: the assassination of Chris Hani arguably brought us closer to midnight than we have ever been, and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as our first democratic president, followed by the hugely symbolic triumph of our 1995 Rugby World Cup win, moved us further from midnight than we’ve ever been.

We too stood at 17 minutes to midnight at that time.

But as the reality of rebuilding our shattered nation bit hard, and subsequent governments failed to deliver that promised better life for all, the minute hand of our Doomsday Clock drifted inexorably toward midnight, as if in sympathy with the global Doomsday Clock.

The euphoria of Madiba’s presidency and the advent of our Rainbow Nation status was followed by the technocratic – but ultimately flawed – presidency of Thabo Mbeki, and as his incomprehensible stance on HIV and Aids allegedly doomed an estimated 350 000 people to an unnecessary death, our minute hand lurched closer to midnight.

The rumblings of what our future held became evident at the time of the fateful ANC elective conference in Polokwane in December 2007, when Jacob Zuma defeated Thabo Mbeki in his bid for a third term as ANC president, and the die was cast.

Since then, our Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight every year, as the calamitous rule of a Zuma-led ANC has unfolded.

Each fresh revelation of perfidy of either the executive or the ANC, has pushed us closer to midnight:

the arms deal scandal and the subsequent sham of the Seriti commission of inquiry which exonerated everybody of any guilt;

the release on parole of convicted corruptor and fraudster, Schabir Shaik, on terminal illness grounds, when he contiues to play golf weekly, eight-and-a-half years later;

the Marikana Massacre which saw the slaughter of 34 striking miners, and the subsequent Farlam Commission which largely exonerated the key protagonists;

the Nkandla disgrace and all its subsequent tortuous twistings and turnings;

the landing of a private aircraft chartered by the Gupta family at Waterkloof Air Force Base;

the Omar Al-Bashir saga, in which he was allowed to leave the country in direct contravention of a high court order to arrest and detain him on International Criminal Court charges of crimes against humanity;

then public protector Thuli Madonsela’s damning reports into the Nkandla saga (Secure in Comfort) and state capture (The State of Capture);

the damning #GuptaLeaks emails, which have allegedly documented the wilful subbonring of state resources to the benefit of a coterie of powerful individuals and their families and friends;

the dismissal of two enormously competent finance minsters and their replacement with fiscal and economic illiterates in smart suits;

the unfolding Life Esidimeni tragedy;

the wilful disregard of the ANC for the state of the nation, putting party before country, when it has always had the wherewithal to remove from office the wrecking ball that Mr Zuma has become.

And so, as the ANC’s 54th elective conference looms, our Doomsday Clock also stands at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.

Will the ANC finally grasp the nettle and take the brave steps required to set back our Doomsday Clock, or will we once more be staring into the abyss, come December 20?