Mcebisi Ndletyana.

And so we greet the new year. With it comes the potential for new beginnings. This is what a new dawn promises, a fresh start. We get to feel that we can imagine things completely afresh. Social reality, however, hardly lends itself to neat compartments.

Today is as much a continuation of yesterday, as it is the start of a different tomorrow. Social reality is a continuum.

That’s not to say the new year will not produce surprises. We’ll continue to be surprised – that’s the inevitability of life. Most of what we’ll encounter as the year progresses, however, will be answers to questions posed by events of last year and 2012.

Some chapters will come to a close, while new ones will start. Most of these will revolve around the looming fifth national election in this 20th year of our democratic order.

Before the end of this first month, we should have an indication of how the stand-off between the government and the office of the public protector will be resolved. It’s a contest of credibility. The government has pitted itself against Public Protector Thuli Madonsela by releasing its own findings on the obscene expenditure on the Nkandla presidential compound. The findings exonerate the president and blame officials.

Now we await Madonsela’s findings. Early reports suggested that the public protector will not free the president of blame. Such findings will mostly likely be accompanied by recommendations for punishment. Previously the public protector has recommended that culprits be fired, and the president has complied. It’s not certain this time around whether Parliament will do to the culprit as the president has previously done. Official instinct is always to spin, obfuscate and ultimately scapegoat.

Public opinion may determine what becomes of the Nkandla recommendations. It will ultimately come down to which of the two institutions – the executive or the public protector – enjoys credibility in the public eye. Prior conduct will determine who wins in the credibility stakes, and the public protector enjoys pole position.

Madonsela has been energetic, transparent and upholds public interest. Government security cluster ministers have been neither. Their cover-up of the presidential involvement in authorising the Gupta landing at Waterkloof didn’t do them any favours. And the initial classification of the Nkandla findings revealed a penchant for secrecy and deception. Even more problematic for them is that the president suffers from a credibility crisis.

The public is likely to believe Madonsela’s report. The government will not be able to brush it off. The election campaign will ensure that the Nkandla report remains central in our public discussions. Parliament will come under pressure to censure the president. Short of looking into a crystal ball, one can’t say how the dice will land. But, land they must, and they may well throw up some interesting numbers.

Nkandla complicates what is already a difficult year for the ANC. It’s a transitional year to a new administration. If Jacob Zuma is re-elected president, he effectively becomes a lame duck. Influence instantly shifts to his likely successor. This makes the deputy presidency paramount. The position will be highly contested, even before the elections. The power struggle may even last into the middle of the term, intensifying towards the 2017 party elective conference, at which a new ANC president will be elected.

In other words, this election year marks a beginning for some and an ending for others. It is the beginning of a new power struggle for the ruling party, as well as of new opposition parties in Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang.

In some ways these new actors make this election year no different from 2009. Even then we had new political parties, notably Cope, contesting the elections.

Unlike 2009, however, the results of this election will tell us more about voter behaviour. If the 2009 election was a test of the enduring popular appeal of the party of liberation, 2014 will test our predisposition towards populism.

Election results in 2009 showed that black voters were ready to turn their back against the party of liberation. The ANC dropped and Cope gained a respectable electoral margin. Cope’s support was unsurprising. It was a protest vote against the ANC’s anti-institutionalism. Cope was a vote for the establishment, to retain the status quo.

Conversely, EFF stands for the opposite. This is the year in which we’ll put popular acceptance of moderate policies to test. How the EFF performs in the election will tell us whether our social safety net has managed to contain radicalism. We’ll soon find out if unemployed youth are angry at the establishment and want to jettison it for a redistributive project.

If Malema measures the saliency of populism in our political life, Ramphela will shed light on whether the black middle-class will keep faith with the multi-class liberation movement. Her denunciation of mediocrity, pleas for merit and common-sense language appeal to this constituency.

This is not entirely a new electoral option. Cope stood for the same option. But Cope was also able to attract working-class folks partly because it attracted some support from the ANC, from which it had broken away. Agang lacks that mass, popular appeal Cope had. The party rests largely on middle-class values.

But Cope definitely dies this year. The party has zero credibility. It had a brilliant conception, only to have a miserable life. It promised something new, but turned out to be a spectacle. Its alliance with conservative, right-wing parties is a fitting ending to an unprincipled existence. This year the curtain will come down on the superb political career of Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota. He has become a one-man party. None of what he’s done appeals to any of the progressive voters who voted Cope back in 2009.

As Cope dies, does the DA emerge as the party of the future? This year will give us the answer to this question. The DA’s prospects hinge on the party crossing the colour line. Leader Helen Zille claims the party embraces non-racialism. And the DA has added more colour to its looks. Last year’s contestation over black economic empowerment, however, suggests that the claim may be mere posturing. Why the party even thought it necessary to show such hesitance, and still retain credibility with its target voters, defies logic.

The black middle-class is a beneficiary of racial redress. Even though the DA eventually adopted it as policy, the preceding flip-flopping threw up doubts over the party’s sincerity. It evoked the old, familiar problem of whiteness: double-speak. Say one thing and do another. Ultimately, it’s not what the leadership claims but what black people believe. The election results will tell us what black folk really think of the DA.

How this year precisely pans out is, of course, unclear. What is certain, though, is that South Africa’s political landscape will look differently at the end of the year. This is a defining year for our political life. There’s a lot of germinating that must come to fruition. This year will ultimately be a test of leadership: are we able to change course or drift further into the wilderness?

- Ndletyana is head of the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection