If 2015 was a sort of global annus horribilis, then 2016 must surely go down as a magnus annus horribilis? It is now trite to say that everything predictable and known has been upended in the most dramatic of ways.
At the time of writing, the war in Syria continues with even greater vengeance and lasting peace seems nigh impossible. US President-elect Donald Trump is bringing Wall Street to the White House and in Europe the threat of rising right-wing nationalism is causing jitters among the establishment. What will that signal for the French and German elections in 2017, one wonders?
Meanwhile, Britain’s Theresa May looks all out of ideas when it comes to what Brexit actually means. As China threatens Trump about his apparent departure from the “One China” policy, we know how much we will miss “No Drama Obama” and his sense of decency and cool. Will Trump’s trial by Twitter become actual policy, however? All the while, Vladimir Putin licks his lips with belligerence. This is no time to be faint-hearted.
Here in South Africa, we have had our fair share of that which we would rather forget – 2016 began with the country still reeling from 9/12 and the sacking of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.
As if that was not dramatic enough, the year seems to be going out with a bang, not a whimper, as the so-called #SABC8 and others give extraordinary testimony in Parliament. The layers are being peeled away and we can now see exactly how toxic the influence of President Zuma’s key enforcer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, has been. The public broadcaster has become the state broadcaster run by Motsoeneng with the express approval of his political masters.
This past week we heard just how deep the rot is. Of course, while the details and contexts are all different, the story is from the same playbook and all leads back to Zuma and the Guptas in most cases. One of the most startling pieces of evidence by the #SABC8 was the alleged attempt at diverting public funds to the Guptas to start a rival television station. Can there be any greater brazenness, one might ask? Well, yes, the capture of the economy – and there has been plenty of evidence of that. The State of Capture report, for which the President is so keen on avoiding accountability, told us everything we need to know about Zuma and his exploitation of public resources for his and his associates’ private gain.
But, despite knowing all the sordid detail, the country finds itself almost inexplicably in limbo as regards Zuma. We may take lessons from South Korea and the way in which it is shedding its president. One part of the ANC is finding its voice, while another remains in Zuma’s destructive thrall.
It is a paralysis that the country is paying for dearly in multiple ways. Much of this year has been dominated by the battle for National Treasury and FinMin Pravin Gordhan fighting for his job while the Hawks circle. That battle seems to have been won by Gordhan – for now. He and Team Treasury have thrown down the gauntlet to Zuma and his corrupt band of cronies in a brave and near unassailable manner. But one senses the battle is far from over.
So 2017 will be even more fraught as attention turns to the ANC elective conference. Cyril Ramaphosa’s head is slowly rising above the parapet but really, he is going to have to be more robust if he is to stand a chance of succeeding Zuma. The “Other Zuma”, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, seems in full defence mode in relation to her own presidential bid and Ramaphosa has been put on notice. He seems to be trying to build a broad coalition of support but he will need to be every inch the negotiator and dealmaker if he really wants the presidency and not to lose it to either Dlamini-Zuma or a compromise candidate.
As the ANC slides further into organisational ineptitude and as it has consistently failed to face its internal challenges, especially after its bloody nose in the local government elections, society seems to be teetering on the brink.
The #FeesMustFall movement laid bare the ANC government’s inability to understand, let alone deal with, the challenges of inequality. And one could go on and on about the litany of social and political issues facing South Africa. It would constitute a tome. Somehow though we have managed to survive another year of Zuma and his brand of scandal and a social compact fraying at the seams.
For all its challenges and difficulties, it is ordinary South Africans who keep doing the work of building democratic communities and spaces for expression and protest in diverse ways. The recent SaveSA movement is plugging away assiduously and calling for change. Our robust civil society organisations continue the call for accountability and openness in the face of secrecy and securitisation.
The courts have held firm, though we need to heed former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke’s words when he says, “The courts cannot be our highest form of accountability.” He is right. It is not the job of the courts to solve what our politics cannot.
Our media too has continued its fearless reporting on Zuma’s corruption and excess and surely the #SABC8 show us what courage in the face of persecution looks like? They deserve our support for their principled stand.
So, for every repugnant act of violence or thoughtless political statement, corruption and maladministration, there are South Africans everywhere making things work, creating, inventing and keeping our economy going. We are narrowly escaping downgrades and keeping our heads down despite it all. We are a ‘Plan B’ sort of people, after all.
We probably need less of a Plan B and more of a Master Plan, but one senses that might be difficult to forge in the year ahead as we brace for another fraught year.
What awaits us in 2017? A toxic mix of the nuclear deal and the concomitant secrecy, ANC succession battles, the flailing economy and Treasury fighting the good fight, the State of Capture report, which must be dealt with, and the ANC benches in Parliament increasingly divided. Oh, and the 783 charges of fraud and corruption hanging over Zuma’s head.
Until then, a particular kind of peaceful silence will fall; that of holidaying politicians. There is nothing else to be done, then, but to put the year behind us. South Africans tend to pack it up, in taxis, cars, buses or hitchhiking, come December. Despite our diversity and the inequality that threatens us so, we are a country of roamers and travellers always seeking the next opportunity with an uncanny ability to simply live in the moment. Because bewildering as our country is, home is always where the heart is. And always worth fighting for. DM
Judith February is a governance specialist, columnist and lawyer. She is currently based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the WITS School of Governance. She was previously executive director of the HSRCs Democracy and Governance unit and also head of the Idasas South African Governance programme for 12 years.
Despite receiving a knighthood from the Queen, Bill Gates cannot use the title "Sir" due to his being American.