As 2016 begins, a perceptibly large divide has emerged between hopes and expectations, with perceptions and forecasts about the coming 12 months having been shaped chiefly by South Arica’s dismal performance in 2015. On the political front, there was little to cheer about.
In fact, some actions – such as the jamming of cellphone signals in the National Assembly, confirmation of rigged by-elections in Tlokwe and government’s scandalous disregard of a court order barring Sudan’s President from leaving the country – were not only a source of deep embarrassment but also a chilling indication that the rule of law may be coming under threat. The news on the economic front was no less disheartening.
As the year drew on, it became apparent that growth expectations would have to be moderated, with commodity prices plummeting in sync with business, consumer and investor confidence.
The country’s already horrendous unemployment rate also deteriorated, with its devastatingly high level of youth unemployment now increasingly perceived as a real risk to future social stability.
The bombshell announcement that South Africa’s credible Finance Minister, Nhlanaha Nene, had been fired did little to inspire confidence. Even the welcome and rapid U-turn in appointing Pravin Gordhan to replace the little-known David van Rooyen failed to fully repair the reputational damage.
While confidence- and growth-sapping electricity load-shedding abated in the second half of the year, the threat of water cuts increased – a condition as much attributable to the drought as to poor water resource planning and management in a number of areas. In the social milieu, too, 2015 seemed to be a year of backsliding.
The levels of crime and violence remained unacceptably high, as did the road death toll. But the year was also tainted by a return of ugly xenophobic violence and a rise in racially tinged rhetoric. Is there any hope amid these negative expectations? One possible sign of hope lies in higher levels of civil society engagement, as epitomised by the #FeesMustFall movement.
Of course, there is potential for such activism to become destructive, particularly when captured by narrow, yet vocal, interests with the power not only to galvanise support for their cause but also to crowd out other more deserving causes. Still, such engagement is a necessary, albeit insufficient, ingredient for social change and should give cause for some optimism.
In light of the upcoming municipal elections, it is also likely that there could be an intensified, and much needed, service-delivery effort. Whether it will be a sustainable effort is a different question. There has also been a growing backlash against corruption and hints, in some places, of improved public procurement practices.
The Gauteng provincial government’s efforts to increase tender transparency offers one example, while the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme has been held up internationally as a successful public–private partnership.
But, following the debacle surrounding the axing of Nene, South Africa is going to need to rebuild its carefully nurtured image as a country of sound macroeconomic management and financial credibility. Sustaining such credibility will be vital to ensuring a semblance of balance between hopes and negative expectations in 2016.