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South Africa (Vol 17, 2020)

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Sanusha Naidu
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South Africa started the year in a technical recession. This was the second time that the country had recorded a recession under the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. Politically, the state of the nation was far from where the government had hoped it would be when the 2019 State of the Nation Address was delivered. Factional politics deepened in the ruling party, the African National Congress (anc), revelations of corruption and state capture at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry exposed the complex nature of patronage networks between the state and political and non-political actors, and the country’s bleak socioeconomic landscape became more dire with, inter alia, rises in basic food costs due to fuel hikes and currency volatility, wasteful government expenditure, and increases in electricity tariffs. The Covid-19 pandemic found the country’s political and socioeconomic stability in a fragile state. A small reprieve was on offer in the foreign policy ambit of the country’s engagements in the UN, the au, and the wto.

See also South Africa 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2021 | 2022.

Contents Volume 17, 2020.

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South Africa started the year in a technical recession. This was the second time that the country had recorded a recession under the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. Politically, the state of the nation was far from where the government had hoped it would be when the 2019 State of the Nation Address was delivered. Factional politics deepened in the ruling party, the African National Congress (anc), revelations of corruption and state capture at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry exposed the complex nature of patronage networks between the state and political and non-political actors, and the country’s bleak socioeconomic landscape became more dire with, inter alia, rises in basic food costs due to fuel hikes and currency volatility, wasteful government expenditure, and increases in electricity tariffs. The Covid-19 pandemic found the country’s political and socioeconomic stability in a fragile state. A small reprieve was on offer in the foreign policy ambit of the country’s engagements in the UN, the au, and the wto.

Domestic Affairs

Like most countries around the world, South Africa saw business as usual in the first two months of 2020. As much as the Covid-19 epidemic was becoming a global concern, for the government authorities it seemed it did not warrant serious reflection since no infection had been recorded in the country. And so the usual political events marked the calendar for the months of January and February.

Beginning with the usual anc birthday celebrations known as the January 8th Statement, the ruling party delivered a confident and cohesive message to show unity in the organisation, strengthening the capacity of a capable state, advancing an inclusive society around job creation, improving lives and livelihoods, bringing about skills upliftment, and redressing the inequities of the past, while not ignoring the need to end gender-based violence (gbv), fight corruption, and ensure effective governance mechanisms. Unfortunately for most commentators, the statement did not offer any road-map on how this would be achieved. It became just another litany of promises that did not synchronise with realities on the ground. Rather, it seemed as if the statement was dusted off each year and set on repeat. As one commentator put it, ‘unfortunately, the January 8th Statement showed a political movement out of its depth, failing to realise that the country is drowning, and how it is pushing it under’.

Meanwhile, the anc could not hide the fractures caused by power battles between factions aligned with former president Jacob Zuma and groups supporting President Cyril Ramaphosa. Despite attempts to illustrate that all was well in the party, it was becoming abundantly clear that the Radical Economic Transformation (ret) bloc that comprised senior heavyweights like the secretary-general Ace Magushule, Kebby Maphatsoe of the uMkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association (mkmva), members of the National Executive Council (nec) such as Tony Yengeni and Malusi Gigaba, as well as provincial structures in the Free State and KwaZulu Natal and constituencies like the anc’s Women’s League, were defiant towards Ramaphosa’s fight against corruption. This was partly due to perceptions that the anti-corruption stance was aimed at purging those connected with the ret faction, including Zuma, from the party.

The intensity of the political rambunctiousness saw the party caught in a dilemma over whether Ramaphosa would remain a one-term president. The internal fault-lines in the anc spilt over into the institutional architecture of the country, blurring the lines of separation between the party and the state. A case in point was former president Jacob Zuma’s non-appearance in a court case relating to charges of corruption. In February, the high court in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal, issued an arrest warrant against the former president after Zuma’s lawyers had explained that he was unable to attend due to medical reasons. The presiding judge refused to accept the sick note as grounds for Zuma’s absence, noting that the document from the military hospital in Tshwane was inadmissible due to inconsistencies since it had no date that could be verified. In deciding on the issue, the judge noted that this was standard practice. But not everyone saw it that way.

Family and supporters of the former president went on a vitriolic attack, challenging the ruling, and accused the judge of being biased, levelling allegations of corruption against him. As much as the claims were seen as baseless and with the KwaZulu Natal acting judge president weighing the situation, noting the independence of the judiciary, the die had been cast regarding the judiciary also being captured and a political witch hunt being waged against those in the ret camp. This became a rallying point and remained an issue of contention throughout the year, with the integrity of the courts called into question and aspersions cast that judges were being influenced by public opinion and by certain political and economic stakeholders with vested interests.

In February, President Ramaphosa delivered his fourth State of the Nation Address (sona). The 2020 sona would be remembered more for the chaos that preceded its delivery than for some of the tangible actions that the president mentioned as the road-map for the year.

In its objection to former president F.W. de Klerk being one of the dignitaries invited to the event, the opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (eff) disrupted proceedings for more than an hour, demanding that de Klerk vacate the national assembly. As if that were not enough, the leader of the eff, Julius Malema, then turned on the minister of public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, with a verbal onslaught about the parlous state of affairs at public entities like South African Airways and the load-shedding crisis at the state electricity utility, Eskom. The eff warned that stability would only prevail in the national assembly if Ramaphosa fired Gordhan immediately. After what seemed like a protracted stand-off coupled with acts of violence with water bottles being thrown, members of the eff left the chamber. Most political parties were in agreement that the flagrant violation of the rules of the house and disrespect shown by the eff warranted urgent action against the party’s members, including punitive measures. Some commentators cautioned that the eff had planned the disruption weeks in advance. The speaker of the house, Thandi Modise, summed up the feelings of the nation when she declared: ‘I’m sure South Africa is not very proud of us tonight’. The address was resumed without the eff in the chamber.

The speech was not considered spectacular. It articulated the usual realities that confronted the country’s body politic. The president emphasised that a social compact was needed to drive inclusive growth. The idea that the speech was to instil confidence and hope among the nation did little neither to inspire or to reverse levels of distrust towards the government. As much as the electorate remained apathetic towards government, the South African Reconciliation Barometer Survey conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation released a report in November showing that the citizenry was anything but apolitical. Over 50% of respondents acknowledged that they were actively engaged in local politics and community-based issues, while 71% noted that relying on each other was more significant than relying on political elites.

The survey results suggested that ordinary South Africans were actively involved in politics and well aware of the critical issues underpinning the governance of the country based on their everyday struggles. Although the Barometer Survey confirmed that the level of distrust in the governing elite was still high, it also reaffirmed the stark reality that the citizenry should not be seen as complacent, unsophisticated, or out of touch in their assessment of the country’s governance deficit and lack of socioeconomic service delivery.

Commentators immediately suggested that Ramaphosa’s 2020 sona was thin on substance, with one newspaper describing the content as ‘empty promises, impossible dreams’. It seemed that it would be left to the finance minister to provide the detail on the implementing of plans that the president outlined in the sona.

In March, the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in the country. It was just a matter of time before South Africa also became part of the global pandemic. For two weeks, government monitored the situation, using the period to define and formulate an intervention strategy. As infection rates rose, on March 23 President Ramaphosa addressed the nation in what was to become known as a regular ‘family meeting’ where he announced a 21-day hard lockdown. This was the beginning of an ongoing cycle of shifts between different levels of lockdown measures, ranging from level 5 (the most stringent set of regulations) to level 1 (a more flexible set of interventions).

The first wave of Covid-19 infection took place between May and July. During this period, the government instituted the National Command Council on Covid-19 as an inter-ministerial body that would take decisions relating to the management of the pandemic through the various lockdown levels. This was in alignment with the government’s adopting the Disaster Management Act, which characterised the response to the epidemic as a national emergency. In preparing for the level 5 lockdown and addressing the security cluster, including the deployment of the national army in managing the stringent regulations, Ramaphosa referred to the pandemic as a ‘war against an invisible enemy’.

President Ramaphosa and his government were applauded for their decisive action, which saw only essential services and workers being allowed to continue with their daily operations, while long curfew hours were put in place and strict bans were placed on sale of alcohol and cigarettes. For the services industry, the lockdown was a heavy blow, and it impacted negatively on small business and informal township entrepreneurs.

The government argued that the level 5 lockdown was necessary to flatten the curve and allow for emergency services like the medical health sector to be prepared as infection and transmission rates increased.

Initially, all political parties welcomed the restrictions following broad consultation by President Ramaphosa relating to the decision. But as the uncertainty of the pandemic loomed and the debate of lives versus livelihoods became more significant regarding the socioeconomic situation of ordinary citizens, the question at hand was whether South Africa could afford to keep the economy insulated while containing the virus. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, was quick to point out that the anc-led government had lost touch with realities in the country and was fuelling an already fragile state of socioeconomic affairs.

The Ramaphosa government, however, recognised the debilitating effect that the pandemic had on an ailing socioeconomic landscape and the precarious situation that faced many households. With this in mind, the government introduced a 500 bn rand (zar) relief package to assist vulnerable sections of the population with the socioeconomic costs of a faltering economy.

Unfortunately the scourge of corruption and financial irregularities and tender fraud in relation to government contracts for personal protective equipment (ppe) reared its ugly head. For instance, payments through the temporary employment relief programme were frozen when it was discovered that the scheme was being defrauded by unscrupulous business owners who were not giving the money to their employees. Then there were the ppe corruption scandals, ranging from price collusion between retailers on masks and sanitisers to large-scale contracts that deviated from tender processes and were awarded to individuals with close links to the ruling party.

Some senior members in national and provincial government, others in the anc, and the partner of the president’s spokesperson Khusela Diko were implicated in the looting of government tenders. This led to the Special Investigating Unit (siu) assessing zar 2.2 bn in contracts linked to irregular tenders associated with ppe, while another zar 30 m in alleged irregular contracts awarded at the provincial level were also being investigated. Despite households struggling to feed themselves, some anc cadres were accused of using the distribution of food parcels as the basis for buying votes.

It became unconscionable that at a time of an unprecedented crisis, selfish material interests were put ahead of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalised. In addition, the scorecard on government achieving its implementation goals on the rescue package was viewed with mixed reactions. Bureaucratic inertia and institutional bottlenecks made the distribution of grants and relief much harder. In turn, the Institute for Economic Justice declared that ‘government needs to radically reduce onerous requirements, cumbersome processes, and stringent eligibility criteria’.

At the time of the second wave at the beginning of December, the easing of lockdown measures did little to mitigate the risks in social behaviour, while the economy faced further debilitation. If anything, as less-stringent lockdown regulations took effect, the idea of a new economic normal gave way to business as usual. The toll of the first wave saw people wanting to enjoy their civil liberties, while for the many employed in low-paid industries, the necessity of keeping a job and earning a living became more difficult to sustain.

The second wave also saw a new variant of the virus emerging called NY501Y, which exacerbated the situation in the country. The new variant was also detected in other countries, leading to travel bans being instituted against South Africans. This even led to Emirates airline grounding all inbound and outbound fights. In all of this, the South African authorities were struggling to contain the pandemic. As the situation become more acute, the festive holiday season saw another adjusted level 3 lockdown with mask-wearing made mandatory. By the end of 2020, the country had recorded 1,057,161 cases with the fatality rate standing at just under 30,000. The peak was to come in January 2021.

As much as the pandemic dominated much of the political, economic, and social landscape of the country throughout the year, with limited political activities registered, the domestic affairs of the country shifted into a hybrid level of engagement. Working online and using platforms like Zoom allowed for policy work to continue.

It was an eventful year as well for the Democratic Alliance (da). The party hosted its much anticipated policy conference and national elective congress. The da also grappled with its internal transformation agenda and spent most of the year trying to rebuild itself following its weakened performance in the 2019 national and provincial elections. The elective conference presented serious questions regarding the party’s retention of black leaders and the perception that it was catering for the needs of minority interests only. As much as the party tried to steer away from race as overarching identity in South Africa’s political landscape, it could not ignore the polarising narrative of racial politics in its own deliberations. This saw senior black members like Herman Mashaba and John Moodey, as well as other African members, leave the party, citing irreconcilable racial differences.

The question of race also became evident in the leadership contestation of the party. In the build-up to the leadership challenge, questions emerged on whether the party was ready for a young black woman, Mbali Ntuli, to lead it. Speculation was rife that the old white guard were orchestrating issues behind the scenes to ensure that the party’s new young guard compromising mainly aspiring white individuals would succeed. Accusations were levelled against party executives of shutting down spaces to prevent Ntuli from actively lobbying with various constituencies in the leadership race. Consequently, John Steenhuizen, the party’s chief whip in parliament, was elected the new leader of the da, with Helen Zille re-elected as chair of the Federal Council. Some commentators pointed out that having a mix of an old and a young white guard in the executive structures of the party implied that the party was leaning more to the right of the ideological political spectrum when it came to race and transformation.

For other political parties, the impact of the Covid-19 virus meant refocusing their presence online. In the wake of the pandemic, the eff was able to harness its populist footprint through its social media outreach. The party’s presence on social media morphed into a significant online presence, including key policy desks on labour, gbv, and structural racism. While the party deepened its social media populism, it was unable to win a single ward during by-elections.

Other smaller political parties were hardest hit by the pandemic because they did not have sufficient resources (monetary or otherwise) to maintain a sustained online presence. Meanwhile, the political landscape also recorded a new political formation led by Herman Mashaba, called ActionSA. This was an anticipated move following his decision to quit the da. But as soon as the political organisation was announced, it ran into difficulties with the Independent Electoral Commission (iec). The iec refused to register the party due to the organisation’s flag and logo having close similarities to those of another political party and the South African flag. Initially vowing to challenge the iec decision, Mashaba ultimately accepted the outcome. ActionSA was eventually registered in December.

The country’s electoral laws attracted headlines with a landmark decision by the constitutional court. The question of whether independent candidates can contest national and provincial elections was brought by the New Nation Movement (nnm), a non-partisan organisation formed in 2017. The issue was first heard in the Western Cape High Court, a month before the 2019 elections could be held. In their court application, the nnm together with two other applicants had contended that their rights were infringed because they could not stand for public office given that the Electoral Act did not allow for independent candidates to participate in national and provincial elections. They argued that a mixed electoral system would be preferred, as it was more flexible in enabling both individuals from political parties and independent candidates to stand for elections.

In delivering his judgment, the Western Cape High Court judge noted that the issue was sub judice, as parliament was deliberating on a report addressing the reform of the electoral system. Therefore, it would be difficult and not justifiable for the court to reach a decision on the matter.

An appeal to the constitutional court took a different trajectory to the position of the Western Cape High Court judge. The constitutional court declared that the Electoral Act was unconstitutional ‘to the extent that it requires adult South African citizens to be elected to the national assembly or provincial legislatures only through their membership of a political party’. The court gave parliament two years to go through the necessary processes to address and revise the act for the 2024 national and provincial elections. Meanwhile, the constitutional court remained active in critical cases that impacted on the democratic integrity of the country’s institutions. The court had to deal with legal challenges from industry actors like the tobacco sector, academics, and postgraduate students, as well as the official opposition and other stakeholders, disputing the constitutionality of the lockdown measures.

In other matters, the court had to deal with an application by the Zondo Commission of Inquiry regarding former president Jacob Zuma absconding from a hearing before which he had been summoned to appear. Tensions between the commission chair and the beleaguered former president had been fermenting prior to this flagrant violation of the summons and rules of the commission, as Zuma had questioned the integrity and credibility of Deputy Chief Justice Zondo.

Zuma’s legal team alleged a conflict of interest in Zondo overseeing the proceedings due to the latter having a familial connection to the sister of one of Zuma’s wives. This led to a war of words between the two individuals in which Zondo refuted the claims, noting that while a relationship did exist with an extended member of Zuma’s family, this did not have any bearing on his impartiality in hearing Zuma’s evidence since the relationship had ceased to exist many years prior. This, however, did not deter Zuma and his legal team from pursuing the matter even further by alleging that Zuma would not be given a fair hearing at the commission. Zuma and his legal team noted that their issue was with Zondo and not the commission itself.

The showdown intensified when Zuma, appearing before the commission in November, left the proceedings without the permission of the chair. In response, Zondo instructed that criminal charges be instituted against Zuma since this constituted an offence in terms of the Commissions Act of 1947. Zondo also noted that the offence would be communicated to the National Prosecuting Authority, and he went to the extent of issuing a new set of summons against Zuma and asking the constitutional court to issue an order that would force the former president to appear before the commission.

The public protector’s legal woes continued in 2020, which also constituted an active year for the judiciary. There were eight legal challenges that saw the courts either overturn or set aside advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s reports and recommendations. These ranged from investigations not properly undertaken and failing in her duties to execute the mandate of her office, to allegations that her conduct in certain cases, like that on the South African Revenue Service (sars) rogue unit, was ‘egregious’ and sometimes akin to bias. The most important of these was her investigation into President Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign funding relating to his bid to become president of the anc in 2017, known as the CR17 funding campaign. The public protector had issued a report citing that the president was obliged to disclose records of the donations made to his campaign. In the report, she argued that as much as it was an internal party issue, it did have serious implications for the state given the relationship between the party and the state. The Pretoria High Court ‘disagreed with her findings and set aside all other findings and remedial actions contained in the report’. The decision was taken on appeal by the public protector, and in December the constitutional court reserved judgment in the matter.

In August, dynamics in the anc reached a tipping point when President Ramaphosa noted in an explosive revelation in his weekly letter that the ‘anc stands as accused No. 1’ when it came to corruption. Analysts declared this revelation an unprecedented move by the president to expose and disclose the intensity of disunity in the organisation. Perhaps the most telling insight that emerged from the letter was how President Ramaphosa was using the corruption issue as a driver to get implicated persons like secretary-general (sg) Ace Magushule, factions aligned to him, and the ret to step aside. By appealing to a sense of morality and ethics, the president went further to highlight that ‘corruption was robbing the most vulnerable of citizens’ and warned ‘those using the party as a steppingstone to power to leave the anc’. Some understood this as Ramaphosa reinforcing his position as president of the party and also letting opponents know that he would not be a one-term president. This was compounded when the president wielded his influence by making sure that decisions from the nec’s meetings were communicated by him in media briefings. This again pointed to the president being unsure of whether the sg would provide an accurate reflection of the discussions and decisions. It became a telling point in the situation that had gripped the party and the levels of distrust across the factional battle lines in the organisation.

As the year drew to a close, the government’s handling of Covid-19 vaccine procurement began to raise questions about whether the state had dropped ball in not being part of clinical trials so that it could take advantage when a vaccine became available. The da continuously raised questions as to why South Africa seemed slow out of blocks when it came to the procurement process and securing purchase of the vaccine. Criticisms were levelled that the procurement strategy was riddled with bureaucratic weaknesses and that the government had no coherent plan. Government defended itself by saying that it was in negotiations with pharmaceutical companies and relevant stakeholders, and that such deliberations take time. But none of this seemed to appease opposition parties and civil society actors.

Things spiralled out of control when the chief justice of the constitutional court Mogoeng Mogoeng made inflammatory remarks questioning whether the vaccine would be an appropriate intervention to mitigate the spread of the virus. Speaking at a religious event, the chief justice noted that ‘if there is any vaccine that is being manufactured or advances a satanic agenda of the mark of the beast, 666; if there is any vaccine, anything manufactured for the purpose of corrupting the dna of people, then that vaccine must be burned, it must die [sic]’. He defended his position along the lines of freedom of religion, speech, and thought but also noted that he was not an ‘anti-vaxxer’. The issue remained contentious, as some commentators felt that by implication because of the position he occupied, the chief justice needed to be impartial and not let his personal views influence the debates regarding vaccine hesitancy.

By the end of the year, questions were also raised about the inflated costs of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. With the price tag of nearly zar 800 m and escalating, some witnesses appeared to give trivial responses on issues raised regarding their implication in state graft, at times not complying with the mandate of the commission. But nevertheless, it was an eventful year for the commission as some high-profile officials appeared before it. Pravin Gordhan was one of the senior members of cabinet reprimanded by the chair for not making himself available to the commission. When he ultimately appeared, it was to be cross-examined by the former sars commissioner Tom Monyane regarding his claims that Monyane was pursuing a state capture agenda that the commission should investigate. The cross-examination became a showdown between Monyane’s lawyer, Adv Dali Mpofu, and Gordhan, given their hostile relationship.

Others included the former board chair of South African Airways Dudu Myeni, former minister of water affairs and member of the anc nec Nomvula Mokoyane, members of parliament Vincent Smith (who subsequently resigned) and Cedrick Frolick, and former senior executives from Eskom. The biggest scalp was Angelo Agrizzi, former senior executive of Bosasa. According to Agrizzi, the company, now known as African Global Operations, paid kickbacks to Smith and Mokoyane in return for their ‘influence in the company’s state business’. Eventually, Smith was charged and arraigned on corruption charges. What was perhaps most disturbing was when the identity of a whistle-blower was revealed during the appearance of Myeni. It was unprecedented, and the commission chair had to intervene and remind Myeni that her admission, whether by accident or deliberate, had serious consequences. This exposed some of the criticisms that the commission faced regarding the protection of whistle-blowers and why those who had vital information were afraid to come forward and assist the commission. The deliberations at the commission revealed a deeply complex web of money laundering using corporate entities, state-tendered projects, and bank accounts, among other instruments, to siphon money out of the country. The domestic affairs further exposed the fault-lines of the country’s fragile democracy.

Foreign Affairs

When it came to the country’s international affairs, the state seemed to fair a little better, despite having to navigate, at times, an intractable global landscape. The Ramaphosa presidency was entering the second year of its third term as a non-permanent member of the unsc. This was accompanied by South Africa assuming the chair of the au and of the Indian Ocean Rim Association and joining the Troika of the sadc’s Organ for Politics, Defence and Security in August 2020.

The country’s presence in these global, continental, and regional institutions boosted its international presence in terms of aligning and strengthening the partnership between the unsc and the au Peace and Security Council relating to ‘financing peace operations, and advancing debates on thematic issues including security sector reform and the women, peace and security agenda’. Key to South Africa’s positioning on the unsc was the reform of the Council itself based on the need to significantly transform the multilateral agenda on global governance.

South Africa stuck to its overall mandate based on the constitutional values defining its global affairs and, more importantly, in line with its membership of and ‘entrenched … promotion of multilateralism through the various multilateral organisations in which it plays an active part, including the African Union, G20, brics, India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (ibsa) and the UN’ (according to the Heinrich Böll Foundation).

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation (dirco) had noted that engagements on the unsc had become increasingly politicised in the year under review. Despite these difficulties, South Africa managed to galvanise its position through closer cooperation on Africa’s objective of ‘Silencing the Guns’. The minister of dirco, Naledi Pandor, had reflected on the country’s performance on the council as ‘partly successful and somewhat challenging’. In reviewing South Africa’s overall engagements during its two-year tenure (2019–20), Pandor noted that the impact of Covid-19 compounded the reorientation of some of South Africa’s priorities towards pursuing a safer world.

The linkages between South Africa’s non-permanent unsc term and its chairing of the au during 2020 were to deepen collaboration for ‘the peaceful settlements of conflict through preventative diplomacy, inclusive dialogue and post conflict reconstruction’. The minister noted that challenges faced by Africa in relation to peace and security interventions had to do with financing instruments. To this end, it was evident that the continent needed to strengthen the mobilisation of its finance mechanisms.

Nevertheless, critics immediately pointed out that as much as South Africa tried to play a bridging role between the continent and the unsc, as well as in the maintenance of international peace and security, the country grappled with its identity as an African actor. One issue that remained a constant blight for the government was that there was little representation of South African personnel in the au Peace and Security Council. This pointed to the fact that it may not be enough for South Africa just to call for closer engagement between the unsc and the au: clarity is needed regarding how cooperation between the two institutions would be structured.

With regard to its chairing of the au, the Ramaphosa presidency had to address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the continent’s fragile public health architecture. A key consideration was to facilitate a coherent response to the pandemic. In addition, South Africa had to consider the corresponding impacts that the pandemic had on the fiscal durability of African countries. With this in mind, according to dirco minister Pandor, ‘the Bureau of the au Heads of State and Government appointed Special Envoys to support the continent in the mobilisation of debt relief measures and securing recovery resources, financial resources, maintaining economic activities and reviving African economies’. In particular, Ramaphosa used South Africa’s membership of the G20 to ask for more debt relief and economic aid measures to be afforded to the continent. The overarching measure was the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (dssi) to assist medium to high debt-distressed countries in sub-Saharan African. There were various instruments linked to the dssi, such as the sovereign debt restructuring framework. But critics suggested that the financial fallout from the pandemic would create a burden on Africa’s prospects of economic sustainability, especially considering that, as noted in British newspaper the ‘Financial Times’, ‘the DSSI lays the burden of repayment on official bilateral creditors … [and] success will depend on whether there is appropriate burden sharing by private lenders’.

In keeping with its au theme, ‘Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development’, South Africa engaged with the Trilateral Negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (gerd). Tensions between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan soared over the construction of the dam and the impact this would have on access to the Nile river. South Africa mediated the negotiations in trying to find an amicable solution and possible negotiated settlement to the conflict. As much as South Africa saw this as part of aligning its positioning between the unsc and the au, an Egyptian newspaper was scathing about South Africa’s role in brokering a resolution of the tensions, citing that the Ramaphosa presidency lacked a coherent plan, seemed to be meagre in its efficacy, and at times was seen as favouring the Ethiopian side by allowing Ethiopia to renege on its promises.

Perhaps the biggest success for South Africa was its handling of the pandemic and engaging with the who to ensure that Africa was not left behind in the procurement of a vaccine. This saw the establishment of the Covid-19 African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (avatt) in support of the Africa Vaccine Strategy. The strategy would also assist Africa in its call for vaccines to be identified as a global public good, especially in addressing possible resistance from the richer countries.

The covax (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) Facility, a who and Gavi Vaccine Alliance initiative to help low- and middle-income countries secure access to vaccines on a fair and equitable basis, secured 600 m doses of the vaccine for distribution in the continent. But the more pressing concern was the increasing shift towards vaccine nationalism and hoarding by some developed countries. President Ramaphosa noted that this was a worrying sign that Africa would be left at the back of the queue once again. Civil society groups like the Social Justice Initiative for Public Health played a crucial role in their advocacy for more equitable distribution of the vaccine. This extended to civil society supporting South Africa’s joint proposal with India for a temporary waiver of the intellectual property rights on access to the Covid-19 vaccine. The proposal seemed to enjoy support from many countries, especially developing countries. The proposal was seen as way to also advocate for access to health to be seen as a global public good.

Closer to home, South Africa had to contend with the security crisis emerging out of the northern part of Mozambique. The insurgency in the Cabo Delgado region represented a regional security threat. The crisis not only led to a human security dilemma for South Africa and sadc, but also saw the emergence of climate refugees as a significant outcome from the conflict. Addressing parliament, the dirco minister noted that the South African government pledged to assist Mozambique in its intervention against the insurgency. This, she argued, would be based on what assistance the Mozambican government needed. But South Africa also had to deal with a backlash from the insurgents, who warned South Africa not to get involved. At the regional level, South Africa’s role in the Troika of the Organ for Politics, Defence and Security seemed to be a more protracted approach to engaging with the Mozambican head of state. The Mozambican president did not attend the sadc summit on the crisis in November and did not provide a road-map on how the situation would be addressed. In fact, it was reported that the only communication from the Frelimo government was a list of military equipment that it needed. The inability of the Troika specifically and sadc in general to actually engage with Mozambique was seen as the regional body once again not having sufficient influence over member states, leaving it with a muted strategic response to the situation. At times, the Mozambican president made it clear that the conflict was a sovereign issue that did not require intervention from the regional body. As the situation worsened, advocacy groups lobbied the South African government to adopt a stronger stance and prevail on its counterparts in the Troika and sadc to intervene pragmatically rather than only symbolically.

In November, the country faced an embarrassing situation when the Bushiris, a Malawian pastor and his wife, skipped the country, violating their bail conditions, and fled to Malawi. The well-known couple were charged with fraud and money laundering. The Bushiris were known for claiming to have cured hiv/aids with miracle oil, and for restoring sight to a blind person. It was coincidental that the Bushiris fled the country during a state visit of the Malawian president to the country. Speculation was rife that the couple had stowed away on the presidential jet. There were fears that this would lead to a diplomatic spat between the countries. Both sides denied the allegation, and the South African authorities were in the process of preparing the extradition documentation. The Bushiris claimed that their lives were in danger in South Africa after having received death threats. Questions were raised about how the infamous couple were able to dupe authorities in terms of security protocols. One national newspaper ridiculously claimed that the couple had altered their physical features. The case was still pending at year’s end.

The Bushiri saga followed on the back of another diplomatic incident involving businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe Radebe, the wife of anc stalwart Jeff Radebe, sister of mining magnate Practice Motsepe, and sister-in-law of Cyril Ramaphosa. The government of Botswana accused Radebe and former president Ian Khama, together with an intelligence officer, Wilhelmina Maswabi, of stealing $ 10 bn from Botswana. According to the charges, Radebe was a co-signatory to two bank accounts holding more than $ 10 bn which had allegedly been stolen from the Botswana authorities to finance terrorism. Radebe had denied all allegations and in August, a South African online media platform reported that she and Khama had been cleared of any wrong-doing. But investigations are still pending because Radebe had hired a global law firm to investigate the matter, which had exonerated her. The matter became more complex when the former public protector Thuli Madonsela was also implicated in the allegations of having dubious links and participating in unlawful transactions. At the press briefing reporting that Radebe, Khama, and Madonsela had been cleared of wrong-doing, Radebe indicated that a defamation case was being considered against the government of Botswana.

Nevertheless, the Botswana government employed the services of AfriForum, a legal organisation based in South Africa, to seek more documentation from the South African government regarding the matter. The issue had now evolved into a political dispute between the two sides, with South African justice department being accused of delay tactics and not acceding to requests. It was also alleged that South Africa had tried to resolve the matter by meeting with officials in Gaborone. Some observers have noted that the situation remains sensitive between the neighbouring countries.

The appointment of Wamkele Mene as the secretary-general of the AfCFTA Secretariat, hosted in Ghana, was a strategic victory for South Africa. There was intense competition between the South African and Nigerian candidates for the position. In the end, Mene, who was South Africa’s chief negotiator in the AfCFTA negotiations, prevailed. He assumed his new position in April.

Socioeconomic Developments

The year began with South Africa experiencing some of its worse structural economic constraints: economic growth was recorded at 0.2%, with agriculture being the main drag on economic growth, contracting by 1.4%; formal unemployment reached a historical high of 29%; youth unemployment was the biggest concern, estimated at 53.18%, with those younger than 25 experiencing a rate of 58%; major credit rating agencies like Fitch and Standard and Poor’s downgraded South Africa’s sovereign debt from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’ while the budget deficit widened to 4.5% due to revenue shortfalls; state wages and expenses constituted the highest spending proportion, at over 34% of consolidated expenditure in the 2019/20 budget; bailouts of distressed state-owned enterprises continued; and household debt constituted over 34% of gdp, meaning that more than one-third of families across the country relied on debt as part of their household income.

With the country entering its first coronavirus wave in March, the government had to reprioritise spending in the budget announced in February to assist vulnerable households and communities. Characterised as a bailout package, the measures included the following: the adoption of the Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (ters), implemented under the Unemployment Insurance Fund (uif); debt relief measures for small and medium-sized enterprises negatively affected by the pandemic; the rollout of ‘social relief of distress’ measures including additional monetary payments for child support beneficiaries; an unemployment grant for those not receiving any form of social assistance; and the disbursement of food parcels to vulnerable households.

As much as the social relief grants were a stop-gap measure to ease the plight of the destitute as well as of an overburdened state, the restrictive measures of the level 5 lockdown exposed the untenable circumstances that South Africa found itself in. First, government did not have the kind of cash injection required to roll out a stimulus package to underwrite the socioeconomic costs of the pandemic. Government found itself caught between a rock and hard place in its attempt to stimulate a flailing economy. Austerity remained an important feature of the government’s economic policy, aimed at retaining the dynamics of the neoliberal architecture of a market-led approach and at appeasing international investors.

Second, the disconnect between the macro and the micro dimensions of the economy became overwhelmingly obvious. It was abundantly clear that cottage industries and small businesses operating in sectors like tourism were not able to absorb the costs of the pandemic. Unfortunately, this meant that those with a low skill base became casualties in the unemployment scourge.

Third, by the time the country moved to level 3 lockdown restrictions, the war on the invisible enemy had become a battle of lives versus livelihoods. Food insecurity was rife, with female-headed households the worst affected. This was as a result of businesses and industries collapsing, with formal and informal employment opportunities becoming scarcer.

By the time the second wave hit the country, the state was grappling with an alarming socioeconomic crisis wherein the economy contracted by 7.2%; 2.2 m jobs were shed in the second quarter of 2020; unemployment spiked to its highest levels, at over 32%, in the fourth quarter of 2020; revenue collection from taxes dipped well below expected returns; households were confronted with less disposable income; and poverty and inequality were increasing rapidly.

Gender-based violence intensified. Given the desperate situation the country faced, social development and community-based organisations noted that violence against women and children constituted another pandemic. While the government tried interventions like banning alcohol consumption through limited sales as part of its drive to allow the healthcare sector to have greater capacity to address Covid-19 infections, this did little to alleviate illegal bootlegging sales, which in turn contributed to domestic violence reaching chronic proportions. Trauma cases recorded at hospitals highlighted that acts of gbv had reached new levels of brutality.

In seeking to mitigate the situation, President Ramaphosa noted that there were three bills introduced in parliament that would ‘fill the gaps that allow perpetrators of these crimes to evade justice and … give full effect to the rights of our country’s women and children’. The three bills were intended to amend the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters), the Criminal and Related Matters Act, and the Domestic Violence Act. In addition, the adoption of a public register of sex offenders was introduced. But civil society organisations raised concerns that gbv victims faced a worsening crisis of violence, particularly in their inability to access help under the lockdown. The police were criticised for a lack of capacity, and at times apathy, in following proper protocols and assisting victims. In some cases, victims were treated as perpetrators by the police and faced further victimisation rather than being given protection under the law. Criticisms were also levelled against the government for continuing to criminalise sex workers. Advocacy groups highlighted that sex workers needed to be afforded the same protections against abuse as anyone else by law enforcement. The lgbti community expressed concerns that their rights were being infringed under the constitution and felt that government needed to do more in addressing their plight as a vulnerable group. Both groups also noted that they were excluded from the Covid-19 financial relief measures.

The country continued to grapple with xenophobic attacks, with foreign freight transport drivers being attacked. This led to the local transport workers’ union demanding that non-South African drivers be removed from their positions. The stand-off saw local transport groups setting trucks alight and created a tense situation where foreigners feared for their lives. The situation of foreign economic migrants moving between South Africa and other countries in the region became more difficult when the country closed border posts during lockdown. This not only saw migrants stranded on either side of borders but also led to illegal crossing that heightened security issues. The lockdown measures were further exacerbated by the public works minister, Patricia de Lille, announcing the construction of wire fence at the Beitbridge border post with Zimbabwe. At a cost of zar 37 m, the fence drew fierce criticisms that South Africa was using the pandemic as a way to deal with illegal Zimbabweans entering the country. The construction of the fence was also caught in an irregular tender fraud scandal and remains a contested issue.

The refugee crisis that emerged in 2019 in the city of Cape Town continued, with asylum seekers claiming that their status in the country remained unresolved. In October, the group organised a protest outside the offices of the unhcr. They argued that unhcr should intervene and assist them in leaving the country. They also contended that their situation in the country remained tenuous, since the government had refused to acknowledge claims of xenophobia. The plight of refugees and asylum seekers received more attention when the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights wrote to President Ramaphosa noting that the government needed to extend pandemic relief measures to such groups. Citing the fact that South Africa is a signatory to the unhrc codes and protocols, the court emphasised that it was obligatory for the country to do so.

The government also had to consider how to deal with public sector wage negotiations relating to the three-year agreement on inflation-related salary increases for public servants. A stand-off developed over whether government would pay these increases. The government, for its part, noted that due to the unforeseen circumstances of the pandemic, it had to re-evaluate its spending. On the other hand, unions pointed out that the agreement needed to be honoured and reminded government that most public servants were at the coalface of the pandemic. Some unions even demanded risk pay for their members. The government did not relent on the issue, and increases were not paid. This was also in line with government’s attempt to find ways to reduce its public sector wage bill. With the three-year agreement coming to an end in March 2021, commentators have warned of potential strikes in the coming year that would add to the socioeconomic woes of the country.

The higher education sector also faced some challenges. Students had to study online due to Covid-19 restrictions but did not have the financial resources to do so. The Department of Higher Education and Training was implored to identify vulnerable students and provide them with laptops and a stipend to cover internet costs. But this soon degenerated into accusations that only some students benefited from such support, and that the scheme was flawed by corruption. The demand was greater than what it was actually possible to deliver.

As the year drew to a close, the socioeconomic landscape was in a debilitated state. The country was placed in an adjusted level 3 lockdown, the volatility of the currency saw fuel price hikes, credit rating agencies pushed South African further into junk status, electricity tariffs increased, and middle-income households started to feel the pinch of the pandemic.

The year under review should not be considered exceptional because of the pandemic. If anything, the pandemic exacerbated existing weaknesses in the structural political, economic, and social conditions of the country. It deepened levels of apathy and distrust towards the ruling elite, and it raised bigger existential questions about whether state institutions were able to provide the necessary social services and protection to improve the lives of ordinary people. The conundrum that South Africa faced in the way its socioeconomic architecture was impacted by the Covid-19 crisis was that most of the challenges experienced by the poor and vulnerable were a result not of the pandemic but rather of the bureaucratic nature of the state and its lack of efficiency.

Author:
Africa Yearbook Online

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