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2011: The year in SA politics – sound, fury and not much else

2011: The year in SA politics – sound, fury and not much else

South African politics is a fast running stream, with rapids, the occasional waterfall and very few placid meanders. The year 2011 seems to have run faster than most. The course of this year should tell us a few things about the direction in which we are going. But first, we need to examine the year – where did we go, and have we actually went anywhere. What impact has the year's politics had, and going to have, on the people on the ground, the capitalist mine-owning elites and those with nothing, not even hope? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In short, in 2011, we did nothing. We have solved none of our problems; in truth we haven’t even started any active work on examining our problems properly. The most we can take from a pretty poor political year is that we have maybe, perhaps, started to correctly identify some of our problems.

At the start of the year, the President Jacob Zuma-ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe political axis around which everyone else seems to rotate at the moment, made a significant policy priority shift. Up until this year’s ANC January 8th statement (that set-piece rally at which the leader of the ANC identifies policy priorities and is supposed to issue marching orders), the party’s main policies had revolved around health, crime and education. Coming off the back of the Mbeki years, and looking at our HIV infection rates, that was perfectly natural. What Zuma and Mantashe did was to diagnose, quite accurately, that our main problem now was jobs. Without them, everyone gets poor; those with them have to feed more and more, both directly as the only earners in their families, and indirectly through taxes and the grant system.

There were huge promises about a year of action on the jobs front, even promises of how many jobs would be created. Unfortunately, none of that has happened. Government’s job-creation targets have been missed, and us capitalists are still grumpy, furious and ignored when we talk about how “it’s the enterprise, stupid”: you allow businesses to start, make it easy, and jobs will follow. Instead, we are still chasing the tail of the problem, not the head.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the proposed amendments to our labour laws, which now seem to have finally emerged from Nedlac, after being becalmed there for most of the year. It didn’t help that Zuma made one of his less-deft appointments in allowing Jimmy Manyi to become Cabinet spokesman, which led to the “discovery” of those comments about there being “an over-concentration of coloureds” in the Western Cape. It led to a sideshow, and general wailing and gnashing of teeth.

In the end, we haven’t actually made any progress on the one issue that is holding us back. The “policy-lock” of the ANC and the Alliance, the fact that it is over-ideologically-broad, too broad a church if you like, means that we cannot even chart a middle course between the two rocks marked “Jobs” and “Decent work”. And until we sort that out, we won’t go anywhere.

On the political/social front, we were dominated, overly so perhaps, by one Julius Sello Malema. Many people will point out that the good side to his antics this year is that he seems to be heading straight into a whirlpool of his own, never to return. That is true. Hopefully never again will we have someone, draped in ANC colours, chanting songs that now, in the public imagination at least, refer to “shooting boers”. It’s one thing to be allowed to sing it (as I have always maintained the ANC should be allowed to do), but quite another to make it a rallying cry. It’s also good and right that someone who is as undemocratic as Malema should no longer hold a leadership post in an organisation as influential, and generally democratic, as the ANC.

However the problems that he identified are still with us. Until we make progress on the economic policy problems, jobs and decent work, until the enterprise is made centre stage, there will be growing and fertile ground for Malema’s purported views and politics. As economic conditions get worse, as the rich continue to rise in the Michelangelo Towers, the poor who see them from Alex will get more and more frustrated. Zwelinzima Vavi’s warning about the “Ring of Fire” around Joburg is more and more likely to come to pass. Malema may have marched, but he certainly wasn’t offering any lasting solutions to the problem. Maybe, perhaps, with his political passing, the argument will move slightly to the right. Business must continue to speak out so that it can now seize the agenda and pressurise government, before another Malema-like figure rises and starts pushing from the other side.

Perhaps the one bright spot, the one slowly moving but placid stretch of water we’ve experienced came in May. This year’s local government elections proved once again, that our politics, at the electoral level, isn’t broken. People vote, and they vote based on recent events. There was clearly a significant motivation behind the minorities, who all, it seems, came out to vote for parties (or a party really – okay Helen, we’ll give you that) that they felt now represents their interests. Those in the Western Cape kept a government they believe has made a significant improvement to previous local governments. In the rest of the country, the ANC lost significant votes, including in coloured and Indian areas in Gauteng it had previously held.

Even the ANC itself conceded that Malema’s “the whites are criminals, they stole the land” and his “The DA is for whites, the ANC is for you” probably didn’t help. His raspy singing voice probably made the ANC choir’s overall tune less attractive. Malema seemed to drive minorities to the DA. Now that they’re there, they probably won’t leave for some time.

There were also significant lessons for what happens when the ruling party doesn’t govern. In Limpopo, the poll was just 50.5%, in the North West 53.47% and in Mpumalanga 55%. This means that nearly half the population couldn’t be bothered to perform the basic act of democracy, which had been denied to them and their parents just 18 years ago. There are several reasons for this, in these provinces it was hardly a contested election, there was no opposition to speak of. But it also means that there are plenty of votes lying fallow, for some enterprising politician to snap up at some point.

The year 2011 will be remembered for many things. The biggest political story of the year was probably Malema – his rise and fall. Along with that went the demise of nationalisation’s greatest (and possibly only) champion. For some, that will be enough of a reason to celebrate. But the fact is, we haven’t actually done anything to help make a better life for all.

The flip side to the Malema story is the Zuma story. They’ve been on opposite sides of the same pendulum. Zuma appears stronger now as Malema has sunk. But that doesn’t mean anything. He certainly hasn’t come up with any plans to improve our lives. He just prevaricates over squabbles in his Cabinet, and looks on as no decisions are made. Look at the finance minister calling for more international investment, while three of his ministers, with Zuma’s presumed approval, try their best to keep Walmart out. It’s embarrassing, stupid and massively dangerous.

And in the meantime, our problems have coming home to roost. The disaster facing local government is beginning to creep into the bigger metros. In the City of Joburg, it seems there’s simply no money, leading to an idiotic “cut-off blitz” where people who allegedly haven’t paid their bills are being cut from the main power grid. In the main it seems the council’s own laws are being flouted in the process, and the city is likely to be told by a high court that it’s behaving illegally. It’s a sign of huge desperation. And if this is happening in the country’s biggest media market, you can imagine what’s happening elsewhere.

Meanwhile our mines are getting older, with no point in investors pouring more money in. Our economy, generally, is slowly slipping; the EU crisis could well be the tipping point. Despite calls from Zuma, Mantashe and Pravin Gordhan, the number of people on government grants is rising. Government’s wage bill is growing alarmingly as well – in the opposite direction to productivity.

It seems our problem is really simple. If Zuma moves in the “jobs” direction, Cosatu howls. If government tries to get tough with unions, the unions howl individually. If Zuma moves against corruption, no one can take him seriously. Especially when people like Willem Heath are appointed to the Special Investigations Unit. If Zuma tries to encourage investment, everyone asks him about Malema, and he can’t speak about that now can he? And if he tries to move in a rightward social policy direction, us nasty media liberals scream and shout.

But he’s not the problem, he’s a symptom of what happens when an over-broad church evicts someone who does take charge. And it’s never going to be in Zuma’s interests to row hard in any direction for long.

Once you’re moving with the current, it can be hard to get momentum to go in the direction of your choice. The longer you stay rudderless, the longer you remain without direction – you drift, without power, destined to never make choices. This would seem to be our destiny for the moment. And in the meantime, we’ll just sink a little more, a little further into poverty, into frustration, and eventually, into anger. DM



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