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2010: A South African political odyssey

2010: A South African political odyssey

It's that time when things slow down and we tend to look at the 12 months past to extract some wisdom for the future. This time, we look at the political newsmaker of the year. And competition for that coveted honour was rather fierce. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

There’s a certain irrationality to starting the process of working out who was the political newsmaker of the year. In our politics, where rationality doesn’t always strike one as the driving force behind major decisions, the task itself is perhaps less rational. But that doesn’t make it any less important. By working out who was the king of cool and who was just a carpentry laggard, you get to understand who’s driving things, and thus how the dynamics of control work. In other words, politics is about trends, and who’s in and who’s out is vitally important.

To look back on 2010 is to look back on a year where South Africa at times showed a distinct lack of sanity. There was the insanity of those Boer songs, the madness of Malema and the delirium of the World Cup. At times we really thought everybody had lost the plot. But as always, after the half-time break (provided by Fifa) things started to regain normality, the ship’s list was arrested. And just to assure things really were as they should be, the tripartite alliance started to get fractious. All in all, it was a pretty normal year, really.

But let’s start. And if you think we’re going to mention anyone outside the Alliance, you’re just plain irrational yourself.

For most people, the president of the country and the ruling party is a cert to be in pole position for political newsmaker of the year. President Jacob Zuma started terribly, with a new wife, a new child by another woman, and a State of the Nation Address that could have used more Viagra. Who can forget the image of our President stumbling through a series of pages that really didn’t seem to make any sense, the stutter that was Absa instead of the Development Bank of SA still haunts us to this day.

Photo: President Zuma at the ANC NGC, September 2010, Durban. (The Daily Maverick)

It’s a mark of his sheer intelligence, some would say cunning, that at the end of this year he is clearly still the top-dog of our politics. He showed he is the ultimate come-back kid by actually ending 2010 stronger than he started it. From a man who was too shagged out to get off the ropes in February, to actually spanking the Youth League in September and firing Siphiwe Nyanda in October is a reaffirmation of our old warning, never bet against Jacob Zuma. 

But having said that, Zuma is still silent on many of the issues of the day. There can be a frustration among the chattering classes, but also we think, among other parts of society, that he never seems to make clear what he really thinks. At Polokwane he gave the impression of an empty vessel, that the will of the ANC would be channelled through him. He’s living up to that now, but sometimes in politics you need to tell your people what to think. There were two occasions when he did this well this year, disciplining Malema, and the cabinet re-shuffle. But for us he still fails a major political test. That is, if he says something will happen, does it actually happen? For us, it doesn’t.

Photo: Gwede Mantashe at the ANC NGC, September 2010, Durban. (The Daily Maverick)

However, Zuma’s being backed very strongly by someone who does pass that test. Gwede Mantashe is the man who is holding the ANC, and sometimes the alliance, together. And he’s done a hell of a job. To look at the party in early 2008, you wouldn’t recognise it now. It’s organised, as unified as ever and basically in much better shape. We’ve always reckoned he’s probably the most powerful political figure in the country. But we also wonder sometimes about having the courage of his convictions. He’s been forced into positions where he’s had to back those in the ANC who seem to have agendas other than “a better life for all”. For him to make it into our top spot, we would like a little more strength on this issue.

Of course, Mantashe faced a tough test this year, and  one of the people against whom he seemed to hold the line was our old friend Julius Malema. Plug his name into The Daily Maverick’s search function, and you get 258 articles. And if you’d asked us just before the World Cup, Malema would have run away with the title for this year. Just think of these issues, mine nationalisation, personal finances, a glorious birthday party (together with the whole stadium singing Happy Birthday, Mr President), the songs about killing boer, land rights, the plot to oust Mantashe, discipline, Zimbabwe, Caster Semenya and who knows how many others, in all of them he’s been a major player. Malema has to be the biggest newsmaker of early 2010. His press conferences were all standing-room only, he appeared to have his own spy running operations against journalists, and you couldn’t open a City Press without reading more about his business dealings.

Photo: Gwede Mantashe at the ANC NGC, September 2010, Durban. (Reuters)

But then he went up against the Mac Daddy, JZ and got a spanking from which he still hasn’t recovered. Today, Malema is just not the force he was. He was able to bolster his position in the ANC Youth League but still, he’s just not the oke he used to be. Hell, his press conferences actually turned into pretty boring affairs. And all because that disciplinary hearing turned against him, and that pesky suspended sentence means he has to be careful. For the simple fact that he has lost the ability to speak his mind in public, he has shown his lack of power. So it can’t be him.

Which leaves us with just one other candidate. One person who we feel has made the running on his own, who hasn’t relied on past victories or false enemies or the power of others. If you do a search on his name you don’t get nearly as many hits as Malema. But you do get a sense that his name is one that will probably dominate 2011 and beyond. In fact, we’d be surprised if Mangaung 2012 isn’t when he really comes into his own. And the real reason that his name has come to the top of our little poll is simple. He (and the organisation he represents) has put his finger on one of the most important issues of our time, the one thing that sometimes seems to stand in our way, the one issue that will literally decide whether our children speak Afrikaans and Zulu, or with an Aussie twang. For his fight against corruption, mobilisation of just about the entire country against the practice of “tenderpreneurship” and wealth-flaunting by the newly-enriched BEE players, his mobilisation of forces against “political hyenas” and his bravery in taking on the darker recesses of the ANC, Zwelinzima Vavi is The Daily Maverick’s Political Newsmaker of 2010. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Main photo: Zwelinzima Vavi. (The Daily Maverick)


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