Foreign Policy Blogs

South Africa: 2011 in Review

Happy New Year, everyone. Before you look forward to 2012 it’s time to look back at South Africa’s 2011.

1. Summary of 2011

There were three issues that defined 2011 in South Africa.

Demonstrations against the "Secrecy Bill". Source: Reuters

1) By far the most significant of these was the controversy over the Protection of State Information Bill. For many years the ANC’s critics — white, usually, though not always — have accused the party of having dictatorial tendencies. These accusations have by and large been nonsense. Until now. The Information Bill, which putatively protects state secrets from being released via the media — a canard if ever there was one — represents an Apartheid-style bill in post-apartheid clothing. If government has the ability to control, menace, and punish an independent media, that media ceases to be independent. Let’s say that you trust the current iteration of the ANC. And let’s say, fairly, that even as the party has had the necessary 2/3 of the vote, or close to it, to allow them unilaterally to amend the constitution, it has not done so. But whenever an act of government such as this passes a useful question to ask is not what this dispensation might do with it, but rather what a future, more draconian dispensation might do. The question is not whether one should trust this government. The question is whether to trust any potential future government.

What has been reassuring has been the extent to which the passage of the bill met with vibrant public dissent. Arguably civil society became more engaged with this issue than any other political question in the post-apartheid era. “Black Tuesday” protests both real and symbolic (in the form of wearing black and in many cases tape over one’s mouth) took place across the country and dominated the news cycle and brought out the best among journalists and public intellectuals. So far all of this protest was to little avail, but it is telling that South Africans did not passively take this news or gnash teeth and ball their fists impotently.

2) During the World War II era in the United States (and in other parts of the world) labor unions had tremendous potential leverage but chose not to exercise it, deciding instead to act for what they believe was the greater good. But once the war ended, so too did the gentleman’s agreement about mass strikes and as a result labor actions proliferated. The Public Sector Strikes that hammered South Africa throughout the country’s winter of labour discontent revealed both the extent of working class dissatisfaction with the ANC and served to reveal the hangover from the 2010 World Cup. By and large the unions chose not to strike during the World Cup the previous winter, but those chickens roosted this year and then some. COSATU may be in alliance with the ANC from an official governance standpoint. But the unions flexed their muscles throughout 2011, once again revealing that the tripartite Alliance might not be on all that sound footing.

3) The ANC’s very public rebuke of Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League’s enfant terrible, represents the latest act but not the last act in an ongoing drama. Malema stands, I’m going to assume, as the country’s Phoenix in waiting. Like Richard Nixon in the early 1960s Malema has vowed that he has exited politics. Trust me — whatever he says, Malema is not done with public life in South Africa. He is destined to rise from the ashes, and when he does, he will carry significant numbers of supporters with him. Maybe not enough to change the country’s political calculus, but enough to make the party hierarchy uncomfortable.

2. Most Unexpected Event

1) In a country where the unexpected is expected it is hard to identify one shocking event or incident. But for observers of South African sport 2011 was not a great year. The Springboks exited the World Cup in rather desultory fashion (though they did outplay Australia in every aspect of the game but the scoreboard, the scoreboard is the only measure that matters). Bafana Bafana was left on the outside looking in when the national team’s leadership did not realize that more than a tie was necessary to progress to the continent’s championship. And the Proteas? Well, they continue to be the best international cricket team never to assert its dominance and they don’t seem any closer to doing so now than they have since their return to international cricket.

But seriously — not knowing the rules of advancement for a major international tournament? Unforgivable.

2) I do know that many of you may not be as sports mad as I am. So the other big surprise, at least for me, was the anticlimactic way that Julius Malema stepped down from his perch at the ANC Youth League. Despite Malema’s Nixonian pronouncements that he’s done with public life, such disavowals are in the nature of the political phoenix. I’m willing to place wagers that we will, in fact, have Julius Malema to kick around in years to come.

3. Person/Group of the Year

There are three possibilities.

1) In a country where everything is political, especially that which isn’t, and that is so dominated by the ANC not only politically but culturally as well, is it any surprise that President Jacob Zuma stands at the top of this list? Love him, hate him, or tolerate him, Zuma is the essential figure in South African political life. It is quite possible that Zuma will face a political storm at the end of the year, but, assuming that he still holds on to power in the party he is likely to continue to maintain this spot for some time to come.

2) For sheer significance in a year in which a mass of public sector workers flexed some muscles and reminded people of the potentially outsized role of COSATU it is hard to overstate the importance of COSATU General Seceratary Zwelinzima Vavi. Vavi emerges every so often to speak, and when he does so, people listen. Vavi could prove to be a kingmaker. Keep an eye on him.

3) For all of the reasons stated above (and for more stated below) Julius Malema continues to be a vital figure in the country’s politics, no less so because of his avowal that he is exiting public life.

4. Forecast for 2012

1) Is the country looking at another Polokwane Moment? In December the ANC will meet in Magaung and in so doing will elect the party president and thus the almost certain winner of the country’s next national elections (and lots of other elected positions of importance). You will recall that in December 2007 the ANC ousted Thabo Mbeki from the party presidency, which began the process of his ultimate humiliation in stepping down from the presidency of the country months later. Jacob Zuma was the chief beneficiary of the events in Polokwane. But many in the party have not been especially comfortable with Zuma either personally or politically. And understandably so.

Will this dissatisfaction give way to a push similar to the one that pushed Mbeki from party leadership? The odds are against it, but Zuma has more detractors within the party than an ANC president should find comfortable. A further irony is that the ANC Youth League might be looking for Zuma’s scalp. There are rumors that Thabo Mbeki might be their man. How unfathomable would that be?

2) More on Malema: Indeed, I would not be surprised if he is visible by the time of the ANC’s party conference in Mangaung in December. Malema may for the time being be persona non grata in the ANC. But will that endure if there is enough of a public clamoring for Malema’s redemption? And if that does not happen, might Malema look toward another political party and another political party toward him?

3) And expect the ANC centenary to dominate the year. And for current party leaders to cloak themselves in that history. Whatever other predictions I make, this one, I’m pretty certain, will be right.

(By the way, in last year’s Year in Review post, which was about the continent as a whole, I think I did respectably in my forecast. The key? Much like with astrology or fortune telling, don’t get too specific!)

5. Best Book of 2011

In a year of good books about Africa, if I have to choose one to recommend, I would go with Stephen Chan’s fine Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits, in which a respected academic expert on the region provides an accessible overview of the state of affairs in Southern Africa with particular emphasis on South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.

Have a great 2012, and thanks for reading.

 

Author

Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid

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