POLITICS

8 Times South African Politics Did Our Heads In This Year

The political news cycle in 2016 was a joke. The moment we thought things were on an even keel something seismic happened. Here's how to make sense of it.

21/12/2016 16:02 SAST | Updated 22/12/2016 08:57 SAST
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Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng reads out the ruling on the Nkandla case at the Constitutional Court in March in Johannesburg.

COMMENT

There have been few years as overtly political as 2016. This year, South Africans were bombarded with charges laid and charges dropped, court applications and their dismissals and thousands of soundbites from Gwede Mantashe supporting President Jacob Zuma.

What made 2016 an anomalous year was the fact that the normal political ebbs and flows didn't apply – we couldn't use previous outlier years, like 2007 or 2008, for example, as a frame of reference for what might happen. Precedent was thrown out of the window as we struggled to make sense of what's happening in the African National Congress (ANC), which was thrown into turmoil because of a wayward leader, governance pressures and a disastrous municipal election.

What made 2016 an anomalous year was the fact that the normal political ebbs and flows didn't apply – we couldn't use previous outlier years, like 2007 or 2008, for example, as a frame of reference.

And if you think things are about to settle into a nice and predictable rhythm, where past experience will guide us and politicians will follow an order paper, think again. Next year is going to be 2016 on steroids. You'll only be able to navigate 2017 if you understand 2016, and these were the turning points.

1. February 24: The adults are back in charge

Pravin Gordhan, the Minister of Finance, had a pretty tumultuous year and has been part of our narrative around state capture from the start. He was reappointed finance minister in December 2015. There was little time to reassert his authority at the National Treasury and its subsidiaries, like the South African Revenue Service (Sars), before he had to deliver his Budget speech. When he did so, however, he helped steady the good ship SAS South Africa after the stormy seas that followed Nhlanhla Nene's dismissal. With Gordhan's hand on the tiller, the ratings agencies gave us respite.

2. April 29: The long road to justice

It's been a long and winding road (to quote a bad Beatles tune), but it looks like Zuma's relationship with Schabir Shaik will be revisited. The high court in Pretoria – which was the scene of many a defeat for the president throughout the year – found the decision in May 2009, by then-head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Mokotedi Mpshe, to drop charges of corruption against Zuma was "irrational" and should be set aside. This was a major blow to Zuma, who wanted to avoid a trial at all costs. Even though Shaun Abrahams, current NPA boss, appealed the judgment, things have become more than a little sticky for the man from Nkandla.

Even though Shaun Abrahams, current NPA boss, appealed the judgment, things have become more than a little sticky for the man from Nkandla.

3. March 31: The Constitutional Court slams Zuma

Zuma had up to that point done everything in his power to avoid accounting for the security upgrades at Nkandla. His supporters in Parliament lambasted the Public Protector with claims that she was being controlled by the CIA, saying she's merely gunning for the president and was improperly influenced by the opposition. In the end, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered a devastating judgment in which he confirmed the Public Protector's powers and found that both Zuma and Parliament violated their constitutional duties. It was the biggest moment of the year. Zuma had to – and did – #PayBackTheMoney.

4. May 17: Gordhan asks for the public's protection

Gordhan returned to the Treasury at a time when the term "state capture" was just becoming part of our collective vocabulary. Revelations and rumours of the infamous Gupta family's "assault" on state coffers was starting to fill news columns and Gordhan was trying to claw back unbridled spending by state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Gordhan very quickly became the focus of the Hawks and various investigations, first in connection with the Sars so-called "rogue unit" and then in connection with a pension payout. Amid all this, Gordhan issued an unprecedented public statement, asking the public to protect the Treasury. The implication? The president doesn't have my back.

Amid all this, Gordhan issued an unprecedented public statement, asking the public to protect the Treasury. The implication? The president doesn't have my back.

5. August 4: Hubris comes knocking

The ANC has been the dominant social and political force in this country for more than 25 years. It has been returned to office at every general election with overwhelming majorities, and even though municipal elections are different, its support has never really dropped dramatically. Those days seem to be over. The governing party received a massive shock to its system (from an outsider's point of view, anyway) when its popular support dropped to less than 54 percent and it lost control of the most important cities in the country, the Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay metro councils. It was a serious blow. But does the ANC realise it?

6. October 31: Gordhan stares down Abrahams

When Gordhan was sent questions by the Hawks just before the Budget speech, we frowned. When he rallied South Africans behind him in May, we were concerned. But when he was charged by the Hawks in October, we were flat-out worried. It had become clear through the course of the year that Gordhan had become the fulcrum of the push-back against so-called "state capturers" – and at the same time their main target. Abrahams made an embarrassing about-turn when he dropped charges against the minister, days after he delivered his "mini-budget". By this time we were very deep down the rabbit hole.

When Gordhan was sent questions by the Hawks just before the Budget speech, we frowned. When he rallied South Africans behind him in May, we were concerned. But when he was charged by the Hawks in October, we were flat-out worried.

7. November 2: Madonsela's big reveal

Thuli Madonsela, the previous Public Protector, had a torrid time. Pilloried by Zuma and the ANC, she woke up the Public Protector's office from its institutionalised slumber and became a symbol of accountability and transparency. Zuma, like with her Nkandla report, tried every trick in the book to prevent the report into the Guptas, SOEs and himself being released. A full bench of the high court in Pretoria saw through his ruse and the report was published after a dramatic day in court. Even though it wasn't conclusive, the interview Madonsela conducted with Zuma remains the most insightful view we have of our head of state's adaptable ethics.

8. December 7: Motsoeneng's great unravelling

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been dysfunctional for more than a decade. Three boards, one interim board and 12 group chief executives later, the SABC gave us the inimitable Hlaudi Motsoeneng. When Parliament's ad hoc inquiry into the state of the public broadcaster started, few had hopes that the committee would succeed where so many before it had failed. But, buoyed by (another) high court judgment which ordered Motsoeneng to vacate his position, MPs at long last spanked errant SABC board members and executives. Now to follow through on that promise.