The year of political discontent

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IOL pic dec17 crowds near mandela bronze statue

Reuters

South Africans gather to see the bronze statue of Nelson Mandela after its unveiling at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Picture: Adrees Latif

The death of SA’s struggle hero and world statesman heralds an uncertain new era for young democracy, says Craig Dodds.

Johannesburg - So this is it. Life after Nelson Mandela. It has been a horrible year, of economic pain and political division, soured by scandal. On the surface, things could hardly be worse.

Nkandla and the outlines of a grand cover-up, Guptagate, the battle over e-tolling, the Vavi affair, the drip-feed of revelations from the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, Malawi (yes, Malawi) and now, the death of Mandela.

It has been a horrible year.

Yet beneath the surface, things have begun to shift. New possibilities beckon and Mandela’s death demands a new resolve. A young democracy on the cusp of maturity finds itself alone, without the benign presence it relied on for comfort.

 

For one thing, while we seem to have been lurching from one crisis to another over the past few years, with the disquieting suspicion that whoever was at the helm was either sleeping or lost, a plan has been taking shape.

This year, the government has shrugged off the sceptics and demonstrated the will to put the National Development Plan into action – even if the details of how that will happen still need to be hammered out.

Remarkably, in a society obsessed with its differences, there is a growing sense of shared belief in this plan, even if everyone has their own interpretation of what it involves and many doubt the state’s capacity to see it through.

Business leaders credit President Jacob Zuma with persuading them, at a watershed meeting after the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, that his government was serious about the plan.

Now there is talk of unprecedented co-operation between business and the government in getting it off the ground.

Given that the labour movement is deeply suspicious of the NDP, seeing it as a reincarnation of the hated Growth, Employment and Redistribution project it believed it had consigned to the dustbin when it helped to oust Thabo Mbeki, this has inevitably led to tension between the ANC government and its labour allies.

In July, that tension took an ugly turn.

The tawdry, but hardly unheard of, sexual encounter between Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and a junior colleague set off a cascade of shocks to the alliance that may yet culminate in a split.

As business, government and much of civil society thinking has converged on the NDP, a powerful element in the labour movement, focused on Vavi and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, has strained against its traditional bonds with the ANC.

That the governing party may have calculated that the threat of economic stagnation is the greater of the two evils is suggested by its decision to implement the youth wage subsidy and to make the NDP the centrepiece of its election campaign, despite opposition from Cosatu.

Nothing is certain yet, but the aftermath of the global economic crisis may have pushed the ANC into a corner where it can no longer contain all the disparate ideological currents that once coalesced around the liberation struggle.

For better or worse, then, a changed ANC has emerged from the contest over e-tolling, the youth wage subsidy and the NDP, and the voice of labour has been muted in the process.

A splintering and the formation of a new workers’ party is on the cards as a result, with unpredictable consequences for the political future.

The consensus on the NDP has also squeezed opposition parties, leaving little room for meaningful policy alternatives.

They may protest about the rate of progress and quibble about the details, but opposition parties in Parliament have all endorsed the plan.

If not for the politics of identity there would be little to choose between them and even here, the differences are beginning to blur, with greater than ever co-operation between them.

Outside the legislature, however, a new political beast prowls.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, launched officially in October, will test the extent of the NDP consensus with its radical alternative proposals for instant nationalisation without compensation, among others.

For those without jobs, houses or hope, and ANC supporters angry with the party’s leadership, this messianic vision may be appealing.

Also new to the fray is Mamphela Ramphele’s AgangSA. Far more considered in its thinking, it has battled to gain traction.

Meanwhile, efforts to jolt the listless public service into life have gathered pace. Little by little, steps such as the ban on government officials doing business with the state, a beefed up Public Service Commission and the setting of professional standards should help to get dysfunctional areas of the state working again.

It has been a horrible year, made uglier by the sinister attempts to keep a lid on the Nkandla debacle and the president’s constant proximity to scandal.

As the booing of Zuma at the FNB Stadium last week showed, public patience is wearing thin.

But under the choppy waters of political contest and intrigue, stronger currents are forming and, in the long run, the fixation on one man’s foibles could prove to have been no more than a temporary distraction.

If the passing of Mandela signals the moment when the nation must step forward and choose its future, and if the shifting of forces has shown it new paths, this year of discontent may soon be no more than an unpleasant memory.

And Zuma, today’s villain, may prove to have been instrumental in shaping a vastly different future to the days when he was the object of national scorn.

Independent on Saturday


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