/ 5 December 2011

2011 in retrospect

2011 In Retrospect

The drama in 2011 seemed to unfold on an almost daily basis, with scandals, disasters and political unrest rolling in one after the other.

We take a look at the stories that had us glued to our TV screens and twitter feeds this year.

Flowering of the Arab Spring
It started with a single act of hopeless desperation. At the tail-end of 2010, a disenfranchised young Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight after police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling to help support his family. Spurred into action by Bouazizi’s sacrifice, thousands of youths, angered by high unemployment and an indifferent government, clashed with police and state officials. Early in January, amid escalating violence, Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country.

As the year progressed, protests flowered across North Africa and the Gulf states. The protestors demands were simple — an end to authoritarian regimes. Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak was next to go, forced to step down after thousands of young, socially connected protestors occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square and refused to yield.

While Egypt’s transition to an interim government has been relatively peaceful, Libya descended into civil war and Nato forces carried out a months-long bombing campaign. The country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi later died at the hands of rebels in the battle for the seaside town of Sirte.

The regional shakeup has left long-time rulers worried. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced a series of tax cuts and social welfare measures along with a job creation scheme. But in nearby Syria, the government under President Bashar al-Assad has responded to protests with extreme violence.

Meanwhile analysts have noted that, as the political landscape around them changes, the once-inert Arab League has begun to take a more hands-on approach to facilitating negotiations between autocratic governments and those pushing for democratic change.

Earthquake, tsunami and fallout in Japan
On a Friday afternoon in March, an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck 400km off the coast of Japan, north of Tokyo. The quake gave rise to a 10-metre tsunami that destroyed coastal towns, killing almost 16 000 people. Months later, over 4 000 people are still listed as missing. When the waves receded, all eyes turned to the country’s nuclear power plants, many of which suffered damage.

The worst hit was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where a state of emergency was declared. About 80 000 people were evacuated within a 20km radius of the plant and matters at the plant quickly deteriorated. In the end, three of its reactors melted down and radioactive material began to seep into the sea and air. Fukushima is the worst nuclear incident of this generation and, although no-one died in the incident, it strengthened public perceptions of nuclear power as a dangerous energy source.

Côte d’Ivoire standoff
When Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo lost the first elections to be held in Côte d’Ivoire for the past 10 years, he claimed that the polls were rigged and stubbornly refused to step down. He ignored international sanctions and pressure from regional political bodies. In April, his political rival Alassane Ouattara gathered his troops and marched on Abidjan. Over 1 500 people died in the ensuing conflict and more than a million people were displaced from their homes. With the help of French troops, Ouattara managed to capture Gbagbo and was recognised as Côte d’Ivoire’s new president. South Africa considered giving Gbagbo asylum but eventually decided against the idea.

A royal wedding
In one of the lighter news cycles of the year, Britain’s Prince William married “commoner” Kate Middleton, on April 29 at Westminster Abbey.

Britain’s Prince William married Kate Middleton in a magnificent ceremony on April 29. Billions of people around the world tuned in to watch the two tie the knot. Relive the day with our slideshow.

The royal nuptuals were streamed live around the world, making it the biggest royal wedding since William’s parents Charles and Diana wed three decades ago. Every facet of the event — from the security detail to every detail of the Sarah Burton dress that the bride wore — was scrutinised and picked apart by TV journalists and bloggers alike. It’s likely the world will not see another such wedding for at least another three decades.

The end of Bin Laden
In the early hours of May 2, the White House alerted the press that US President Barack Obama was about to make an important announcement. US special forces had uncovered the hiding place of Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11 terror attacks which brought down the Twin Towers in New York City, killing thousands.

Obama revealed that Navy Seals had killed Bin Laden at a compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad. The al Qaeda leader, who had evaded US intelligence for more than 10 years, was not found hiding in rural Pakistan or the mountainous regions of Afghanistan as had long been suspected, but in a town not far from Pakistan’s largest military academy.

In his address, Obama told the world “justice has been done”. But many questioned the way Bin Laden had been executed, saying that it would have been better to place him on trial for his crimes. Others decried the way his body was disposed of at sea. On the political front, questions were raised concerning the US’s relationship with Pakistan. Although Pakistan is one of the US’s key allies in the region, its government was not informed of the US’s intention to carry out a military strike within its borders.

Local elections
South Africans turned out in record numbers to vote in the municipal elections in May. Voter apathy is on the rise internationally, with voter turnouts falling particularly in local elections but in this country, 57% of those eligible to vote cast their ballots, making it the largest voter turnout since the 1994 elections. The ANC maintained a constant 62% of the vote and made some gains in Kwa-Zulu Natal, where it took support from a fractured Inkatha Freedom Party. But its support declined slightly in every other province. Smaller parties like the IFP and the UDM were decimated in the municipal election, and only the Democratic Alliance seemed to be making inroads with voters. The opposition party saw a huge increase in support — 23%, up from 16% in the previous local election. However, it failed to take some of the metros it hoped to win and, despite its merger with the Independent Democrats and its bid to cast itself as a non-racial party, only 5% of its voters were black.

Famine in East Africa
In June the UN warned that after seasons without rain, countries in the Horn of Africa were now facing the worst drought in 60 years, increasing food shortages and, in Somalia, famine. With nothing to eat or drink, Somali refugees flooded across the borders to Kenya and Ethiopia, where conditions were only slightly better. Aid organisations said 13-million people in the region were in desperate need of aid. In the months since news of the situation in East Africa began to make headlines, matters have gone from bad to worse, with rebel groups kidnapping aid workers and preventing aid from passing through to refugee camps; escalating sexual violence and human trafficking; torrential rainfall that’s threatened to flood tented camps and increase the risk of water-borne diseases; and most recently a bid by al Qaeda to win over drought victims by distributing aid and money. The UN says about R20-billion in aid is needed in the Horn of Africa but there is a R7.3-billion shortfall.

Frustrated aid workers say there should be greater investment in long-term development and strategies to prevent disasters like famine but months down the line, it’s hard to say whether the world is still listening.

Birth of a nation
At the stroke of midnight on July 9, six years after a peace deal ended decades of civil war between north and south Sudan, and six months after the January referendum that laid the foundations for the creation of a new state, southern Sudan broke away from its neighbours to the north and the Republic of South Sudan was born. South Africa took some pride in the event as former president Thabo Mbeki headed the African Union panel that helped bring about a peaceful end to the brutal civil war between north and south.

Terror in Norway
On July 22 terrorism reared its ugly head in an unlikely place, the Norwegian capital Oslo and the island of Utøya.

The world joins Norway in mourning the death of nearly 90 people at the hands of a right-wing extremist in the deadliest attacks in Western Europe since the 2004 Madrid bombings — and the worst in Norway since the Second World War.

When an unknown assailant detonated a bomb in a government building, then went on a shooting spree at a nearby youth camp, many news organisations assumed that the killings were the work of Muslim extremists.

But the killings were the work of a local man — Anders Behring Breivik, a militant, anti-immigrant extremist Christian. As Norwegians struggled to come to grips with the violence and uncertainty that Breivik had wrought in a country where most police go unarmed, international news-watchers battled to overcome their ingrained stereotypes concerning terrorists.

London burning
After police shot a man in Tottenham, London, in August, angry residents marched through the streets, protesting against police brutality. The march was the spark that soon set London alight. In the days that followed, mobs of cowled youths stormed through the streets looting, setting fire to buildings and engaging in running battles with police.

Anger exploded on the streets of north London’s neighbourhood of Tottenham at the weekend, resulting in the worst outbreak of rioting seen in years. This followed the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old man by police earlier in the week.

The violence quickly spread to other cities including Birmingham and Bristol and the world watched in astonishment as one of the most affluent cities in the world collapsed under homegrown anarchy just a year before it is due to host the Olympics. Authorities quickly clamped down on the violence, arresting over 3 000 people and fast-tracking the criminal prosecution of more than 1 000 rioters. Analysts were quick to point out that social inequity lay at the root of the issue, and Britons were left wondering how to engage young people who slip through the country’s social net.

Shenanigans at the ConCourt
The appointment of Mogoeng Mogoeng in September was the controversial conclusion of months of drama at the highest court of the land.

Following the Judicial Service Commission’s interview with Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng, President Jacob Zuma’s controversial nominee looks set to become SA’s fourth chief justice. We summarise the main points from the weekend’s proceedings.

The Constitutional Court saw its biggest test of the separation of powers principle as President Jacob Zuma tried to push his preferred candidate, Sandile Ngcobo, into what experts argued was an unconstitutional extension of the chief justice’s term of office.

Amid court challenges to the move, Ngcobo — a worthy leader but tainted with Zuma’s approval — stepped down. His sudden departure made for a leadership vacuum, with the obvious candidate for the position, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, again overlooked by Zuma, with whom he has had differences in the past.

While rumours raged that other candidates turned down the appointment in deference to Moseneke, Zuma caused a storm of angered reaction by nominating and later appointing Mogoeng. This despite a series of submissions and newspaper exposés about his unsuitability as a candidate, pointing to a dearth of published work, and a series of rulings that seemed to favour perpetrators in rape and child molestation cases. Questions have also arisen about what appears to be homophobic views, all of which Mogoeng, who now heads up one of the branches of our government, vociferously denies.

Zuma, a Man of Action
When Zuma reshuffled his Cabinet for the second time since taking office, it was seen as a positive move. The October reshuffle came after Public Protector Thuli Madonsela issued damning reports on corruption and misuse of state funds in the departments of public works and cooperative and traditional affairs as well as the police force, and recommended swift action against the officials involved.

Zuma at first appeared to be dragging his feet in acting upon Madonsela’s recommendations. Despite the growing impatience of political watchers, opposition parties and the trade union Cosatu, he held onto the public protector’s reports for months before finally swinging into action. Then, in a single press conference, Zuma axed both Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and Sicelo Shiceka, and suspended national police commissioner Bheki Cele, earning praise from even his fiercest detractors. While Zuma’s camp maintain that the president was acting in the best interest of the country, others say he simply cut loose weak Cabinet members, who were of little political value to prove to the country that he is a decisive leader with an anticorruption stance.

Israel/Palestine prisoner swap
That same month, Israel and Palestine finally concluded years-long negotiations concerning an exchange of prisoners. Israel got 25-year-old Gilad Shalit, who had been kidnapped by militants in 2006 and had not heard from or seen since 2009. Palestine got 477 prisoners, some of whom had been imprisoned by Israeli authorities for decades. Many Israelis felt that the country had paid too high a price for Shalit and the deal was seen as a victory for Hamas, the Palestinian political party that controls the Gaza Strip.

The rise and fall of Julius Malema
The erstwhile president of the ANC Youth League picked up 2011 right where he left off last year — making headlines on an almost weekly basis. While in 2010, his highlights included throwing his support behind Robert Mugabe on a cross-border visit, singing dhubul’ ibhunu at various rallies and throwing a BBC journalist out of a press conference, his 2011 will be remembered as an even more controversial year.

ANC Youth League president Julius Malema led a two-day march for economic freedom from Jo’burg’s city centre to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, handing over memorandums to the Chamber of Mines and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange along the way.

He called for regime change in Botswana; denied that he was getting kick-backs from officials in his home province through an engineering firm partly-owned by a family trust; had his finances investigated by the Hawks, the public protector and the South African Revenue Service; gate-crashed a high level ANC meeting; lead a thousands-strong march from the Jo’burg city centre to Pretoria and then got ousted from his beloved youth league and suspended from the ANC.

As the outcome of Julius Malema’s disciplinary hearing is announced, the Mail & Guardian takes a look back at his humble beginnings and his rapid rise to the upper echelons of SA politics.

Malema, who was found guilty of bringing the ANC into disrepute and sowing division within the party by an ANC national disciplinary committee, has vowed to appeal the decision and said he will “soldier on”. With his record, we can only assume that Malema’s 2012 will be as newsworthy.

View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.