From the Editor: This is my song, for the asking

Under the bright, bright sun of Bloemfontein – now comprehensively rebranded Mangaung – opposition to the established order seemed to melt away this week.

Right-wing plotters in short shorts were swooped upon and shackled before they could detonate their millennial mix of Semtex and Siener van Rensburg, while the air hissed out of the campaign against Zumantashe faster than Julius Malema can say "abuse of state resources for political ends". And, on the policy front, "radical change" was simply a rebranding strategy for ongoing vacillation between Trevor Manuel's competitive, capable state and Ebrahim Patel's developmental one.

"Viva God," said ANC chaplain general Vukile Mehana as he called down blessings on the heads of Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. In the wide, blue Free State sky above a very large, very hot tent, a storm gathered and leaked a few desultory raindrops on to the canvas. Never mind the Mayan apocalypse: even the weather couldn't get it together to be a convincing metaphor.

It seems utterly implausible that a year that has lurched from crisis to scandal with all the coherence of a tik fiend on a trampoline should end in still and sweaty calm as the emperor of spies sang back to the dias Cyril Ramaphosa, once and future king of democracy's first decade.

Zuma's voice was clear, plangent even. Not here the percussive, resentful expulsions of breath that drive Umshini wam; rather it floated and soared above the ecstatic delegates – above children deprived of textbooks in benighted rural schools, above the miners lying dead in the dust of Marikana, above the serried ranks of ANC muscle and police spies, above the quarter-billion-rand mansion complex he has built on an Nkandla hill and above the chill forensics of a KPMG report that itemises his addiction to other people's money.

It was, for a moment, a song to silence all the spy tapes in the world, drawing together the great man, frail beneath the sheets of his Pretoria hospital bed, and the all-too-human figure before us: "Mandela said the road would be long and hard. We will meet again on Freedom Day."

Of course, a song can do no such thing.

Smaller scandals
South Africans might have said they began 2012 inured to outrage – not just the outrages of apartheid, which we could not tolerate, but smaller scandals that have gnawed and scratched at the state we built on its ruins until a bright new edifice became a grubby and familiar thing.

We lived through the impossible disjunction of presidential Aids denialism, which sacrificed thousands of people at the altar of third-rate race theory and conspiracy talk even as a modern technocracy was being built.

We looked away, probably relieved, when charges of fraud and corruption against the next presumptive president were dropped on the most spurious grounds, perhaps because we were unsure about whether our fragile construct could withstand the battering Zuma was prepared to give it as he tried to fight his way clear.

Something began to build this year as incomprehensible outrage was heaped upon outrage, and we could feel it in the public and political response to major news stories.

When the Mail & Guardian first reported in 2010 that the president was building a gargantuan new home in Nkandla, at a cost we initially put at R69-million, there was some sotto voce muttering, but no real response. When we updated that report with underground bunkers and miles of fencing in 2011, it got a little louder, but gained no real traction. When we revealed this year that an entire new town was being built and when leaked documents subsequently supplied new cost estimates edging toward R250-million, Zumaville became the defining story of presidential excess and arrogance.

Similarly, when the Democratic Alliance first sought to have the decision to drop charges against Zuma reviewed, it was treated as a political stunt, even a slightly embarrassing return to a dead issue. By October, his refusal to hand over the "spy tapes", which prosecutors had claimed were the basis for their caving in, was a major national issue.

Popular anger
When we first reported in December last year that children in Limpopo would almost certainly go without textbooks in 2012, there was barely a ripple of concern. By June it was a cause célèbre, fuelling the rise of a highly effective new civil society group, Equal Education, which is applying the lessons of the Aids struggle – street-level work, lobbying and litigation – to the crisis in schools.

This shift isn't just evident in the middle-class echo chambers of metropolitan media either. If anything, popular anger preceded the realisation in more comfortable locales that something has been going very wrong.

The violence in the platinum belt is a brutal exclamation mark behind every analysis of a society increasingly unable to contain its contradictions. A liberation movement and its allied unions that have drifted far from their moorings, a business sector that has been content to buy political peace through corrupt equity transfers and a civil society frightened of making an intervention in the domain of real, representative political power: these are no longer enough.

If that realisation, like the summer storm that never came, failed to arrive as a single revelation at Mangaung, it was nevertheless evident in a hum of anxiety that you can't read in the results, but that seeped into every serious conversation about what happens next.

Some of the smartest and most credible people around – Trevor Manuel, Jeremy Cronin, Kgalema Motlanthe – are not sticking around to provide the answer. Zuma's answer is the jackboot, the chieftaincy and the song. After 10 years of silence and accumulation, Ramaphosa is a hope wrapped in an enigma.

Time for the rest of us, then, to pick our jaws up off the floor and offer our own.

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