2012: The year of tawdry politics on a plate

It has been South Africa's annus horribilis – the year in which those people around the world who supported the anti-apartheid movement before 1994 and believed in the grand narrative of South Africa's escape from the clutches of apartheid could only watch in dismay as the post-liberation social compact finally collapsed.  

For the progressive liberal-left at home and ANC traditionalists everywhere, 2012 was politically an almost unrelentingly bleak 12 months. South Africa is a decidedly different place from what it was a year ago.

It was always going to be a toxic, difficult year, because the pattern is now established: every five years a pause button is pressed and politics – and to a large extent government – succumbs to the peculiar pressures of the ANC's national conference process. That much can be factored into the calculations for the year. The more adroit analysts and captains of industry do it, knowing that it will pass. But this year it simply served to make what followed that much worse.

It began promisingly. After a ghastly, cringe-worthy January 8 centenary celebration in Mangaung, where even the usually unshameable Jacob Zuma appeared embarrassed as champagne was slugged back by the leadership in front of a fast-dwindling crowd of sweltering party plebs who had not been provided with even a glass of water, the president delivered his first half-decent State of the Nation address of his time as the head of the government.

There was a real sense that despite everything – despite rather than because of his style of leadership, or lack of it – the key economic planning ministries in the government were settling on a core strategy based on an infrastructure plan of unpre-cedented scale. Seventeen "strategic infrastructure projects" were identified and R845-billion allocated to them for the next three years.

Visible evidence
Although a presidential infrastructure co-ordinating committee was established, there is not yet much visible evidence of speedy progress towards implementation – a gap that next year's State of the Nation address will have to address.

It is the government's big play, perhaps its only substantial card along with the national development plan, in an unrelenting, unforgiving ­contest against the socioeconomic distress of a precarious nation, one vulnerable to exploitation by populist opportunists.

Soon after Zuma's much improved performance in Parliament, the ANC's moderate centre appeared to have regrouped as it fought back against one such figure, Julius Malema, and expelled him from organisation. One wondered: Could the centre hold after all?  

Time will tell whether the resolve shown by the ANC disciplinary committee and its appeal body in expelling Malema (when it might have been easier to fudge the matter) was a false dawn in the ANC's attempt to recover its discipline and with it a lost dignity, or whether it has instead set in motion a chain of events that will come to haunt the organisation later.

I suspect the latter. Malema will be back. In fact, as the year unfolded with a sequence of increasingly painful events and he jumped with alacrity into gaps vacated by a political establishment running scared, there was a sense that he never went away.

Charged with a relatively modest set of tax-evasion charges, Malema has every chance now to present himself, as Zuma did, as a victim of that political establishment's appetite for power and vindictiveness. Like the most dangerous fascists of history, Malema has the ruthlessness as well as the charisma and courage to take full advantage of this situation.

Wintry punctuation mark of The Spear
Before the horrors of the spring, there was the prolonged, wintry punctuation mark of The Spear. At the time it seemed ridiculous enough. In the light of the truly tragic consequences of labour unrest at the Marikana mine that followed a month or two later, it seems doubly absurd. That such political energy could have been focused on a piece of political satire, when all around the tinder was ready to be sparked, is no less outrageous than the callous disregard for the dismal living conditions of the mine workers' communities.

What the inexhaustible yet tiresome fascination with The Spear revealed was the lack of social consensus about the parameters of free speech, obviously, but also the willingness of the ANC leadership to encourage such divisions rather than seeking to heal them. Thus the ANC vacated its place as guardian of the nation's unity. Instead, it opted for a far less lofty role: a grubby, ordinary political party desperately vying for attention and scrapping to hold on to power.

With hindsight, it can be seen that The Spear was the hors d'oeuvre. Marikana was the main course: the watershed moment when the governance vacuum became a reality and a grave threat to the social stability and future prosperity of South Africa. Cosatu woke up to the fact that it, too, was now a part of a political establishment, outmanoeuvred on the ground by more radical-sounding break-away unions that threaten not just the union's hegemony, but the system of collective bargaining that has been a key piece of the 1990s social compact.

Some on the left will welcome this disturbance of political elites, arguing that it is a necessary catalyst for heightened class struggle. Certainly, a new phase in the economic and political history of the country has begun. But the problem is that people living harsh and painful lives died or lost those on whom they relied for survival, yet there is little indication that the country's business leadership is rising to the challenge of the moment in terms of paying decent wages, or articulating a new model of corporate social responsibility and social partnership.

The recent deaths of humble servants of liberation such as Jakes Gerwel and prominent architects of the Constitution such as Arthur Chaskalson add further poignancy to a grim year of loss.

Can it get any worse? Certainly, in one unmentionable, almost unthinkable way, it could. But let us not dwell on that sad possibility and instead focus on what lies on the immediate horizon: Mangaung.

Messy affair
Next week promises to be a suitably messy affair. Somehow, the ANC leadership will have to find a path towards greater unity as well as redemption for recent blunders.

As much as the president that it elects, the national executive committee's membership over the next five years will be a decisive factor for the future, because in the local government election in 2016 the ANC will probably lose control of three more cities, which will be one hell of a jolt to its self-confidence. At that point it will need calm, smart leadership lest it descend, reeling in shock and anger, towards a populist-dominated national conference in 2017.

Bumping into an old ANC activist at the Durban International Climate Change conference at the end of last year, I asked what he thought of his organisation at that moment. "Forget the ANC," he said. "It's gone. Gone forever."

Although he has moved on, with another life now as a climate-change campaigner, I could not miss the bitter regret that tinged his words. He is one of thousands of men and women who sacrificed a great deal for the ANC and for the liberation of South Africa and now feel a sense of loss and anger and profound angst about its future.

He, and they, can be forgiven for feeling hopeless as well as contemptuous of the current leadership. Restoring hope and weaving a new narrative of national purpose and unity will require great leadership. Right now, the country does not have it. South Africa deserves better than Zuma. The ANC deserves better than Zuma.

It's not just snobbishness. He is simply not up to the job and not fit for public office. Although no one man or woman is solely responsible, 2012 was the year in which the ANC, and the country, paid the full price for the Polokwane presidential putsch and the chickens truly came home to roost.

We can only live in hope, if not in expectation, that this time a wiser choice is made.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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