Eat, drink and be merry this holiday season, for we deserve a break between what has been a tough year and another that lies ahead. As we ring down the curtain on a year of global recession, rising prices, deepening unemployment and political farrago at home and abroad, there is little prospect of respite in 2012.
The political front especially is going to be tumultuous: an ANC centenary year that could be either celebratory or disruptive, which could see President Jacob Zuma either triumphantly re-enthroned or humiliatingly discarded; a US election which could see the most intelligent president of our time either win a second term or be replaced by potentially the most dangerous one; plus the completion of the phased Egyptian elections and constitution drafting process that will define the Arab Spring and possibly reshape the Middle East; and, as an optional extra, an attempt to hold a general election in Zimbabwe that may bring that drawn-out saga to a head – or maybe not happen at all.
I have little doubt that the ANC’s centenary conference at Mangaung in December is going to outdo Polokwane in political theatre. The conflicts and contradictions within the liberation movement are now so multitudinous it is hard to keep track. Cosatu MPs and members of the cabinet are committed to supporting the Protection of State Information Bill (I call it the Protection of Corruption Bill) while the leader of their organisation is denouncing it and threatening to challenge it in court.
Zuma is criticising the Constitutional Court, saying (as the old National Party did in 1953) that it should not be above the sovereignty of Parliament; members of the SACP seemingly agree, contending that the constitution itself is outdated and should be changed; while Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe declares that the constitution is sacred and the very bedrock of our democracy.
These are not mere disagreements on policy, and there are plenty of those. They are fundamental differences over the very nature of the state – as fundamental as it is possible to get in politics. What Zuma and the SACP are saying amounts to a repudiation of the covenant entered into by all parties at Codesa and consecrated by Nelson Mandela in his historic inaugural address.
A covenant to declare the new SA a constitutional democracy, in which the constitution is the supreme law to which all citizens, including MPs, cabinet ministers and the president himself, are subject.
It won’t be changed, because the ANC doesn’t have the required two-thirds majority in Parliament, but the fact that the president and his deputy are at opposite ends of this debate about the very nature of our state highlights the hopeless confusion within the ANC and its alliance partners.
Throw in the mounting anger at the proliferation of bungled appointments, the bling and the corruption and the scramble for high positions that will take place at Mangaung, and one must ask not only whether Zuma will survive, but whether the ANC and its alliance will – and if they do, for how long?
It seems to me 2012 will see a turning point in our politics, with the cracks in the alliance widening to the point where we shall be able to foresee a major realignment in the years that follow.
As for the US election, it is clear that Barack Obama, who has all the attributes to be one of the greatest presidents in US history, is on a knife-edge as he seeks re-election in November.
His first term has been fraught with horrendous problems, mostly inherited from his disastrous predecessor, George Bush.
He has struggled with them for three years, barely able to achieve anything positive, and now the Republican-controlled Congress is waging an ideological war to obstruct further efforts.
No sitting president has ever recovered from the position Obama is in with less than a year to go to re-election. Yet he still stands a chance – because of the unbelievably low quality of his would-be Republican challengers.
Some, such as Herman Cain, who led for a time before stumbling, have been little more than comedians. Others have been far-right extremists or plain lightweights.
Two are now emerging from this uninspiring pack: Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, and Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives. Romney, a solid and experienced politician with relatively moderate views, has been leading for months, but Gingrich, a much more scary individual, has surged recently, turning it into a two-horse race.
Next month will see the primary contests begin in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The latter is the most intriguing, for local wisdom has it that if you don’t win South Carolina, a Bible Belt state that views politics through a religious lens, you don’t win the Republican nomination.
Here is where Romney, easily the saner man, has a problem. He is a Mormon and the evangelical right in the US just don’t accept that the Mormon faith is Christian. They view it with suspicion if not outright hostility. It is estimated that 60 percent of those who will vote in the South Carolina primary are evangelicals.
That could catapult Gingrich into an unstoppable lead and ultimately make him the Republican candidate, from where he could, of course, become president. I find that alarming.
Gingrich is a smart man with strong popular appeal, but he has an erratic temperament. David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist, describes him as having “a revolutionary temperament – intensity, energy, disorganisation and a tendency to see everything as a cataclysmic clash requiring a radical response”.
He displayed this the other day in a startling television interview in which he described the Palestinians as “an invented people,” leaving even conservative Americans gasping at such crassness on the part on an aspirant president addressing one of the world’s most explosive issues.
“There was no Palestine as a state,” Gingrich said blithely. “It was part of the Ottoman Empire, and I think we’ve had an invented people who are in fact Arabs and were historically part of the Arab community and they had a chance to go many places.”
What absurdity. As if Israelis, and indeed Americans, are not themselves “invented” nationalities.
Gingrich was obviously making a pitch for the Jewish vote, but even the Israeli government was shocked. Imagine such a bull in a china shop at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation.
Hopefully it is that thought that may nudge Americans into giving Obama his best chance of retaining the presidency.
Which brings us to the Egyptian elections, which will be completed in July. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to emerge as the strongest party, so setting the pattern for a new political framework in the Middle East and challenging Israel and the West to come to terms with organisations they have shunned as untouchable. That in itself will be epoch making.
As for Zimbabwe, it has defied all predictions for so long it would be foolish to offer another – except to note that Robert Mugabe is surely not immortal, politically or physically, and the day of seismic change cannot be far removed.
On that mildly optimistic note, I wish you all a fortitudinous New Year.
l Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator. His fortnightly column will resume on January 18.