/ 4 January 2017

Don’t give me another 2016, please

President Jacob Zuma has relied on his lawyers to stall and delay cases against him.
President Jacob Zuma has relied on his lawyers to stall and delay cases against him.

Congratulations. If you’re reading this you survived 2016. The Chinese Year of the Monkey, which, like a mischievous primate, exhausted, bemused and bewildered us to such an extent that we’re now writing columns on how crappy last year was.

I don’t need to tell you why 2016 was a particularly dismal year. But a quick recap would include a year of increased racial tensions in South Africa, the deaths of many cultural, music and acting legends, the election of Donald Trump as United States president, and the continued decline of the ANC, ultimately affecting the entire political economy of the country.

How this affected you, only you can say. But I can tell you the effect of 2016 on the country’s journalists was particularly rough.

You see, the 2016 news cycle did not start at midnight on January  1. It started at about 10pm on December 9 2015, when a late-night email from the presidency announced the firing of the finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene. The rug was pulled out from under him faster than the chair he fell off while live on SABC TV in 2008. And then the appointment of the relatively unknown Des van Rooyen to the key post. Oh, all the googling we had to do.

The effect of that night is felt to this day. Journalists now sleep more lightly, with ears trained in anticipation for midnight pings on cellphones, just in case it is another email from the presidency.

Not only did the Nene firing, the hiring and firing of Minister Weekend Special van Rooyen, and the hiring of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister send our economy into temporary freefall, it meant journalists had to say goodbye to their much-cherished December vacation.

It is traditionally the time when those reporters who cover the goings-on in the halls of Parliament, the ministerial boardrooms in Pretoria, and those who camp outside Luthuli House in Sauer Street, Johannesburg, get a little well-deserved time off.

Usually, the only political drama is dealing with problematic family who’ve come to visit for the holidays.

So by the time the political year kicked off with the ANC’s January  8 statement, political hacks were already weeks into running on very little sleep and too much caffeine, and feeling grumpy about missed trips to the beach or the bush. What a way to start the year.

By February’s opening of Parliament and President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation speech, which is usually a sedate, pedestrian affair, the political pace for the year was already set. But because of Zuma’s December shenanigans, it would see opposition parties baying for blood — and some in his own party sighing breaths of discontent and anonymously detailing their disquiet to reporters.

By March, sessions in Parliament were marked by walkouts by the Democratic Alliance, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Congress of the People. And there were frantic late-night ANC national executive committee and national working committee meetings.

By April we saw a failed motion of no confidence in Zuma. Breathless debates ensued in the National Assembly about how Parliament, according to the Constitutional Court, had failed to hold Zuma to account regarding the public protector’s Nkandla report and the recommendations. The same court also found the president failed to uphold his oath of office. And then the DA had a shot at impeaching the president in the national legislature.

All this and we weren’t even close to local government elections.

When campaigning for elections got under way, it was, uncharacteristically, a welcome respite from national politics. Election coverage, if planned well, usually goes off quite smoothly. And, with the utterances and actions of Zuma being eclipsed by election coverage, many reporters got some rest.

Still, the monster that is media coverage beckoned. But it’s not all Zuma’s fault.

Take, for example Makhosi Khoza’s — ANC MP and chair of Parliament’s ad hoc committee set up to select a new public protector — outrageous idea to interview 14 candidates in one day. Anyone with basic arithmetic, and even the slightest knowledge of the verbosity of parliamentarians, would tell you that this would be a 20-hour mistake.

Khoza’s logic was clear. Splitting the interviews over two days would unduly benefit candidates who could watch others being grilled on live TV. So candidates were holed up in a room to await their interviews. They were allowed access to their devices and the internet. You know, devices that could be connected online, where they could watch the interviews being streamed on websites.

The interviews for the public protector are now the stuff of folk legend among parliamentary journos. Some from the same media stable took it in shifts. Others spent half a day at Parliament before going home and watching the rest on live TV. I lasted until 1.30am with two candidates still to go. It’s unclear whether I ever made up for that lost sleep. Only one journalist stuck around for the entire thing. Legend.

The latter half of the year was made up of continued gaffes and own goals by the president and some members of his Cabinet. Unlimited fodder for newspaper front pages and online news thinkpieces. From Minerals Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane issuing an “incorrect statement” without the approval of the Cabinet, calling for a judicial investigation into the four big banks, to continued revelations and accusations over the influence of the Gupta family in state affairs. The charging (cue public outrage) and subsequent dropping of charges (cue public outrage), and then the threat of more charges (cue … you get the point) against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan by prosecutions boss Shaun Abrahams.

All this would be enough to keep any avid political watcher happy and sated. But, for many reporters, it was all getting a bit too much.

By November, my body was broken. My doctor diagnosed me with chronic fatigue. “Get some rest, Lester. How about a week off?” she advised. “Are you crazy?! There’s a no-confidence debate in the National Assembly next week,” was my reply. The year had been tough, but I believe I was a strong, formidable parliamentary reporter.

When the House debated its confidence in the president, and the vote was counted, where was I? Doubled over a toilet bowl in the loo behind Parliament’s media gallery. The exhaustion had triggered a viral infection. Zuma’s political year: 1 — Lester’s: 0. Along with Eskom’s Brian Molefe, I was one of many of 2016’s political collateral casualties.

Now what lies ahead in 2017? At the time of writing this, it’s so far, so good. There have been no midnight mails, no Cabinet reshuffles. No sign of any major political scandal — yet.

So please uBaba, Msholozi, Mister President, with tears in my eyes, don’t give us another 2016.