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The Year of the Meme concealed a new cynicism and deeper fragmentation in South African politics. Other than the country’s diminished international stature, the ruling ANC and President Zuma demonstrated a rare talent for obfuscating essential national issues from broad scrutiny.

A sensation of living inside an endless series of memes is the surreal experience that South Africans shared in 2016. It’s a crowded bubble of escapism used to find meaning in the often perplexing political milieu.  On the day that former Public Protector finally released the  State Capture report, one meme synthesised  succinctly the national mood. In it, crowds are seen gathering outside the President’s office clearly calling for him to vacate the presidency. The Deputy President is seen telling Zuma that ‘the people have come to say goodbye‘, to which JZ  enquires, ‘where are they going?‘. This imperviousness has been typical of Zuma’s  presidency and his regime’s resistance to public opinion which broke new ground this past year.

2016 is the year in which South Africa left  early adulthood to take unclear and sometimes ill-advised steps towards redefining its socio-political praxis. In many cases, the attempts were discouraging [the combative relationship between ANC and the constitution] and others simply disastrous, [the Hawks’ unfounded pursuit  of Pravin Gordhan ] . At the centre of this, Jacob Zuma and the Teflon machinery around him are central to much of the quagmire that South African politics are facing. A few years ago I wrote:

‘Zuma has presided over a year of turmoil in the economy, uncertainty of markets, industrial action, community uprisings, increasingly obvious internal party strife. At the same time, the judiciary has yet to recover the credibility it lost trying to protect the president.’

Sadly nothing has changed since.

At that time, the Economic Freedom Fighters did not exist.  Zwelinzima Vavi was still Secretary General  of a stronger COSATU and key cheerleader of the Zuma ‘Tsunami‘.   The Fallists had not yet been coined as such , and the finance minister had not yet been charged by the Hawks. The Guptas did not swallow news headlines. The spectre of the 783 corruption charges still hung in the air and the incredible woman known as Kwezi was alive and in hiding.  Fezeka’s passing this year after four women memorably called for  rape allegations to be remembered was a potent reminder of a long and unforgotten shadow of Zuma’s tenure.

What occurred in the intervening years, as  another meme expressed,  is not that  President Zuma failed, rather  he found 10,000  new ways to not succeed. The years since his incumbency have been marked by constant spin-doctoring which in 2016 was stretched to its full capacity, often found wanting and incoherent.

The wreckage that began at the close of 2015 with what another meme described as  ‘extreme job creation’ - three finance ministers within a week - continued to reap chaotic dividends last year.  The general population responded angrily, analysts and economists analysed the carnage daily and our economy reacted with disdain as the rand refused to grow. Despite President Zuma’s  2016 closing shots that ‘business, government and society must work together on this national imperative’ it seems inexplicable having presided over a year of deep and definitive decline. As another meme suggests, Zuma’s problem with running the country will be solved if he just turns it on and off again. Oh, that rebooting South African politics and the rather ragged economy were so rudimentary.

The Year of the Meme concealed a new cynicism and deeper fragmentation in South African politics. Other than South Africa’s diminished international footprint, severely felt in Burundi, South Sudan and Ethiopia, among others, the neo-patrimonialism begun in 1994 reached new velocity in 2016. Granted,  global politics  has collectively lost its compass as illustrated by Brexit, the shadow of a Trump presidency and the Rouseff impeachment in Brazil.

Minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s blithely dishonest claims that Cabinet intended to investigate the big banks’ links to the Gupta clan, that he still retains his position, is as reflection of the Zuma regime’s disinterest in maintaining even the most elastic standard of public service ethics. The term regime rather than administration is used deliberately. The blitheness has not served the ANC or the Zuma legacy effectively this past year.

The one person who has constantly upheld the ethical bench mark despite being vilified by some members of the ANC, Thuli Madonsela, left  and fired heavy missives in her wake. Although inconclusive, the former Public Protector’s  interview with the President  revealed the malleable ethical framework that circumscribes the current political landscape. Thankfully, attempts by the President, Mosebenzi Zwane and Des van Rooyen to prevent the State Capture report from receiving the oxygen of public exposure failed. Even the CIA could not avert its release.

The  report’s release, however, could not assuage  the deep crevices in our State machinery.  The idea that even this steep descent to madness is not entirely of our own making but is conducted from Saxonwolde disturbs the sensible.  Around the moment that Brian Molefe’s once sturdy career left the building for a yet to be traced shebeen, deeper problems about the efficacy of the nuclear deal were muffled under meme-dom. The slippery link between the high turn-over of finance ministers, the over priced nuclear deal and the leafy northern suburb illustrates that the government, the ANC and the president have a rare talent for obfuscating the essential issues from broad scrutiny.

The information laundering has been conspicuous throughout the bruising battle for the SABC and its mandate to report news fairly and fearlessly. Vigorous attempts to airbrush social protest from TV screens illustrate South Africa’s diminishing ability to tolerate being systematically told untruths. The “SABC 8” have distinguished themselves as champions of journalism and in doing so have  encouraged South Africans to be more vested  citizens.

The Fallist movement was an emblematic recipient of SABC’s skewed and mischievous misreporting with some media describing the protests as ‘rampages and anarchic ‘.  All this while failing to analyse the extent of police brutality  and incarceration on Falllists. This includies  the many  women in the movement  whose role has all but been erased. The response to this was the president’s rejoinder that he is not afraid of jail.

The Constitutional Court,  under the leadership of another solid pillar, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng,  stated that even the president is not above accountability regarding the Nkandla upgrades. By implication this means he is indeed not above the law and legal sanction-including  the same jail that the president does not fear. Although the Nkandla saga now feels like chewed out chappies, it is a red rag to be waved as a reminder of the president’s capacity to delay legal processes and  subvert constitutional instruments.

The National Prosecution Authority’s  attempt to prosecute Minister Pravin Gordhan  seems to have been a bridge too far. The spectre of Gordhan being summoned on national television did not only alarm markets but, more importantly, illustrated Zuma and his regime’s capacity to divest themself of ethical accountability. The essay that  President  Zuma asked  Shaun Abrahams to  write in order to prove his fitness to hold office, having appointed him, was  one of the deepest low-points of many  valleys we traversed in 2016.

Possibly the deepest was the mediocre showing that the still ruling [or governing, if you prefer] party made at the local government elections. The ANC lost major metropoles and despite the contested numbers, the fact remains that this is a mortal blow  to the presumed invincibility of the ANC and the president’s leadership. Although Zuma survived two votes of no-confidence, the margin of survival has narrowed slightly and open discussions about a dignified exit are made on any given day on any radio talk show.

The plethora of  pithy ‘Jesus came early’ memes  alone should have been  sobering. Sadly,  the ANC taking stock  seemed to be a blame seeking exercise constructed around reasons not to hold Zuma for the election loss.

The SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande described the succession debate  as  disruptive to the ANC saying: “It cannot be that each time there is a talk of succession, we have this turbulence.” Is it worse than the current turbulence? The levels of visceral violence inflicted on South Africa   rendered it almost impossible to retrieve to our political innocence.

In responding to another of the president’s misteps, that the clergy refrain from politics, Archbishop Makgoba said:

 “I have so far not joined the call for our president to resign, but said that he should step aside while his party leaders address their crisis. But our situation compels us to ask, when do we name the gluttony, the inability to control the pursuit of excess? When do we name the fraudsters who are unable to control their insatiable appetite for obscene wealth accumulated at the expense of the poorest of the poor?”

 The man of the cloth has spoken. Amen.

* Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is Senior Research Fellow - The Trade Collective; Managing Director - Four Rivers Trading; Steering Member - South African Women in Dialogue [SAWID] and Board Member and Africa Regional Coordinator - International Network on Migration and Development.



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