Few South Africans are likely to look back on 2016 with much fondness – the economy has flatlined, unemployment has increased and social and racial tensions have flared. Nevertheless, it has argu- ably been an important year for the country and the evolution of South Africa’s democracy.
The greater assertiveness of civil society, which made its presence felt in 2015, was consolidated in 2016, warts and all. Once again, the hostile #FeesMustFall standoff between university students and management was emblematic of this trend.
However, those protests should not eclipse other significant civil- society developments, most notably the Save SA campaign, which has created an extra-parliamentary platform for opposition to the President Jacob Zuma government.
While not fully aligning itself to the call for Zuma to step down, business, nevertheless, also seemingly found its voice this year. In addition, business emerged as instrumental in providing Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan with the moral support he needed to successfully navigate the downgrade risk, as well as other even more treacherous threats to his liberty.
The performance of the courts as well as South Africa’s former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, offered some much-needed reassurance of institutional resilience, notwithstanding serious backsliding at the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and several State- owned companies.
Change in the political milieu, meanwhile, has been as disruptive. Besides the unexpectedly poor electoral performance of the African National Congress (ANC) in key metropolitan areas, there has also been a shift in control over the political narrative.
Opposition parties are progressively dictating the content and tone of the conversation, while testing the limits of their power in the courts and, increasingly, in Parliament. But arguably the most significant political shift has taken place within the ANC itself, where opposition from within has become far more perceptible and has even taken on a structural character in the form of the stalwarts and the veterans grouping.
Without question, these civil-society and political developments have increased the levels of uncertainty and, in some cases, anxiety. They are also making governance more difficult, which, in the short term at least, is leading to lower levels of confidence and investment.
Indeed, the ruptures in the ANC have spilt over into just about every sphere of public life. They are, without doubt, a tremendous threat to institutional credibility and political stability, particularly if some of the belligerents decide to resort to hostile methods to break the stalemate. Nevertheless, the societal and political developments of 2016 (however uncomfortable) could well form the foundations for a far more accountable public sector down the line.