Who among us can reasonably say that South Africa is not in a better place politically than it was a year ago? But a febrile and angry political discourse is stirring up the dust on the road to the 2019 national and provincial elections, the outcome of which is more clouded in uncertainty than any since 1994, and may obscure the view.
Take a step back. Just over a year ago, on December 18, we did not know who was going to be the next leader of the ANC. Cyril Ramaphosa was elected, but had Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma prevailed, would things have been quite as bad as the doomsayers would have had us believe?
Okay, she not only would have been beholden to the foul alliance of Zuma nationalists who constituted the main body of her support, she would also have been highly unlikely to have attracted the tailwind of support from broader segments of society, such as the private sector and unions, that Ramaphosa is able to leverage in support of his turn-around agenda.
Although it is likely that the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture would still have gone ahead because the public protector and the courts had ruled that it should proceed — perhaps Dlamini-Zuma would even have used it to cleanse her support base and liberate it from state capture’s noxious grip — it is implausible that the same ambience of renewal, redemption and recantation that has encouraged witnesses to come forward with evidence would have boosted the commission had Ramaphosa lost last December.
Why so? Because we forget it is highly unlikely that Dlamini-Zuma would have been able to remove Jacob Zuma from power in the way that Ramaphosa did in February, even if she had wanted to.
That was the vital political powerplay of the year. But, as 2018 began, it was far from certain that it would happen. Ramaphosa proved that he was prepared to be ruthless as well as patient; on the eve of St Valentine’s Day, Zuma was gone, though the wily politician kept us guessing until almost midnight.
A day later, Ramaphosa was voted in as president of the republic and then, 24 hours later, he gave a brilliant, inspiring State of the Nation address. Only in South Africa could such drama unfold at such pace.
Soon, 10 “Zupta” ministers got the chop in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet reshuffle: Lynne Brown, Mosebenzi Zwane, Des “Weekend Special” van Rooyen, Fikile Mbalula, David Mahlobo, Bongani Bongo, Nathi Nhleko, Faith Muthambi, Hlengiwe Mkhize and Joe Maswanganyi. More recently Malusi Gigaba was forced to step down as minister of home affairs.
We said goodbye, or rather good riddance, to many other agents of state capture, including Siyabonga Gama (Transnet), Anoj Singh (Eskom), Tom Moyane (South African Revenue Service, Sars), Shaun Abrahams (National Prosecuting Authority), Berning Ntlemeza (Hawks), Dudu Myeni (SAA), Lucky Montana (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) and Dan Matjila (Public Investment Corporation).
So 2018 was also the year in which we discovered just how much damage state capture has caused.
Watching Pravin Gordhan since he was appointed as chief clean-up operator (minister for public enterprises), one sees a man who has looked into the abyss. Is it worse than you expected, one asks him? “Yes” is the curt, one-word answer.
The recent auditor general report on state-owned enterprises (SOEs) made for grim reading, pointing out that the SABC and the South African Post Office cannot survive without state bailouts; they are in effect no longer going concerns.
Forty-one percent of public entities’ expenditure exceeded their income, with a gross deficit of R35-billion. Denel, the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation and SA Express also incurred the wrath of the auditor general, prompting him to report that, “considering that most of the SOEs where audits had not yet been completed are facing going concern challenges, the financial outlook for most SOEs is bleak”.
Eskom and Transnet, which are not audited by the auditor general, revealed irregular expenditure of R28.4-billion.
These poor audit results also highlighted problems with the oversight mechanisms of the responsible line- function departments. Ramaphosa’s clean-up operation clearly still has a long way to go.
In response to this dismal inheritance, the president has resorted to the modus operandi that those who have known him longest know is his preferred method of solving problems — good process. It requires patience that many, including those who guide market sentiment, rarely have.
It has, for example, yielded the sound appointment of Shamila Batohi, a former director of public prosecutions in KwaZulu-Natal and current legal adviser to the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, as the new national director of public prosecutions, which will make it easier for Ramaphosa to defend when she starts investigating powerful figures in the ANC.
Furthermore, the inquiries into the fitness of deputy national director of public prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba and special director of public prosecutions Lawrence Mrwebi to hold office have commenced, headed by retired Constitutional Court judge Yvonne Mokgoro.
As with other state institutions that were contaminated over the past decade, it will take time to disinfect and restore to full working order and integrity a prosecuting authority that has not had a lawfully appointed and properly qualified head since 2006. Politically sensitive prosecutions are now possible.
Already, Zuma and his son, Duduzane, face corruption charges. Their principal benefactors, the Guptas, are now fugitives from South African justice and there will be many people, inside and outside the ANC, who will be twitching nervously and employing lawyers against the backdrop of the drip-drip of almost daily revelations at the Zondo commission.
When one pauses and reflects on what the commission is doing, it is quite extraordinary: it is examining, in excruciating detail, not the failures of some previous government or the erstwhile abuse of power but those of the current government. This, too, is clearly on the credit side of the political balance sheet.
On the debit side sits the ANC. One need look no further than the Brexit shambles to see how internal party politics and division can stymie government. Ramaphosa has to drive with at least one eye on the rear-view mirror. His party is a drag factor. And although Ramaphosa is winning most of the internal battles, the war is not yet over. He has to be cautious and, until he — or rather the ANC — wins a decisive, fresh mandate at the 2019 election, he will face internal constraints.
Hence, much of the government’s planning has necessarily involved postponing some of the most politically sensitive decisions until after the elections. Playing back conversations with a number of Cabinet ministers over recent weeks, I have been struck by how often the phrase “six to nine months” has been used in the context of a particular policy decision or reform.
So, it is despite the ruling party rather than because of it that 2018 can be regarded as a year of redemption as well as renewal — even when one recognises, as one should, the progressive and principled members of the ruling party who have had to resist the Zuma onslaught.
We should be grateful for the fact that, politically, South Africa appears to have once again pulled itself back from the brink.
If there is one upside to the Zuma years, it is that the project of state capture stress-tested the Constitution and the Constitution passed muster.
As the Zondo commission and the Nugent inquiry into tax administration and governance at Sars have revealed, it was a close-run thing. Many institutions were not only battered, but succumbed to the insidious takeover by the Zupta crew and their agents and accomplices. Thanks to the efforts of an alliance of progressive democrats inside the ANC and in civil society, the media and the opposition parties, the state capture project was named, shamed and halted in its tracks. That, surely, is democracy in action. That, surely, is something South Africa should be proud of.
If it leads to a concerted, decisive strategy to address the structural constraints that face the economy and that render South Africa’s fragile socioeconomic landscape vulnerable to populist demagoguery, then in due course 2018 will be seen as a hinge year — in which the country pivoted not like many others such as Brazil towards an ugly, violent populist-authoritarian future but towards a progressive, peaceful future based on reason and rationality — a new age of enlightenment, if you like.
Politically, 2018 gives us cause to be hopeful, even optimistic, about the future.
Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and partner in political risk advisory group, the Paternoster Group