The past year has been a strange one for South Africa. Some people have described it as an annus horribilis (which roughly means a disastrous or unfortunate year), while others have described it as “watershed”. I would not use those words, but 2016 had a bit of everything. And all indications are that 2017 will be more of the same, if not worse.
If your name is Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma then, I suppose, you could have reason to consider 2016 as horrible, what with Public Protector findings against you, being grilled in Parliament, being subjected to protests inside and outside Parliament, and possibly facing more than 700 fraud and corruption charges.
On the political front, 2016 was the year the ANC started losing support: they started losing direction a few years ago. In the municipal elections in August the ANC lost control of three major metros, something that would have been unthinkable not too long ago.
The reaction has been a flurry of initiatives to “correct” what went wrong in the ANC, or to try to lure disfranchised ANC supporters to other parties, most notably the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Towards the end of last year, there were attempts by veterans and elders, many of them still within the ANC, to try and force the party to address the reasons behind the slump in support at the August elections.
But it is difficult for the ANC to address it because, at the root of all their troubles, most people realise, is the President’s relationship with a prominent business family who many believe have captured the state.
The issue of state capture was probably the main feature of South Africa’s political life last year, with several high-profile individuals making claims to back up perceptions of state capture, leading to an investigation by the former Public Protector.
The Public Protector, with limited time before she had to vacate office, tried her best to present a thorough report, despite attempts by the President and others to frustrate her work. She recommended a judicial inquiry to continue her investigation, something which the President is now taking on review.
The President had previously challenged the Public Protector’s report into whether he had to pay back money spent on upgrading his Nkandla homestead. The court ordered that he had to pay part of the money, which he did by taking out a loan with a relatively-unknown bank.
Whether the flurry to “save the soul” of the ANC will have any impact is still to be seen, but there are many people who feel it is a case of too little, too late. Some of those who feel this way are people who have been loyal to the ANC for years.
One of the good things to come out of the troubles faced by the ruling party is the role of Chapter 9 institutions, such as the Public Protector, the courts, and civil society.
A positive change in terms of the courts in 2016 was the ruling by several magistrates and judges that losing parties must pay costs, personally and not by their companies or government departments. This was seen first in the case of the SABC8 and later also in a case involving the President.
The other thing that gave us hope was when members of Parliament interrogated what has gone wrong at the SABC over the past few years. Hopefully they will interrogate other important issues with the same vigour this year. The SABC, of course, is one of the institutions believed to have been captured, along with state-owned entities such as South African Airways and Eskom.
The one institution that appeared not to have been captured yet is the Treasury, despite the Minister of Finance changing three times in four days just over a year ago. The Treasury remains an important institution to safeguard proper governance and accountability in South Africa.
Some of the security agencies have, on the face of it, unfairly tried to put pressure on the Minister of Finance to resign by charging him or investigating charges against him. At the time of writing, he was still Minister of Finance and will hopefully still be around when the Budget is presented in February and beyond.
If 2016 was difficult, 2017 will not be any better. At the end of this year, the ANC will be hosting their next elective conference. President Zuma has already served two terms as ANC president and already there is huge speculation about who will replace him, even though, in terms of ANC tradition, lobbying for positions is frowned upon.
Things will probably get worse before they get better, and they will not get better in 2017. I hope I am wrong, but my experience is that sanity and decency goes out of the window when the leadership of the ruling party is at stake.
Here’s hoping that 2017 will be better than 2016, even though our politicians will probably make sure that it is not.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 7 January 2017)