Utafiti: Journal of African Perspectives


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In the third democratic election since the end of apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) consolidated its hold on power with an even larger majority. South Africa confirmed its role as the leading economic, political and military power in sub-Saharan Africa and as Africa's interlocutor with major foreign powers. While President Thabo Mbeki set out on his second term in office, debate on his succession opened up. Vice-President Jacob Zuma, the most likely candidate for the presidency, became entangled in a drawn-out court case in which one of his business associates faced charges of fraud and corruption.


The hype over the outcome of the ruling party’s successful elective conference hosted in Mangaung in December 2012 soon dissipated in anticipation of the fifth national democratic election to be held in 2014, 20 years after the country’s negotiated transition to democracy. Domestic affairs continued to be underpinned by issues of government transparency and accountability, and the oversight role of the National Parliament, as well as scandals and corruption cases related to state tenders, procurement of government contracts, and the use of state resources. On the international front, Africa and multilateralism remained the pivot of foreign policy making, albeit with sometimes limited coherence and success regarding Pretoria’s global identity. In terms of socio-economic developments, poor economic growth and performance, exacerbated by strikes resulting in decreased productivity and industrial output, caused tensions between the state and its citizens. But the principal event impacting on the country was the death of President Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected black president.


A highlight of the year was the celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of South Africa’s political transition to a democratic dispensation in 1994, when the African National Congress (anc) became the ruling party. This was a significant milestone for reviewing the country’s political and socioeconomic achievements and challenges, as well as the status of its democratic future. The other main focus was the fifth national and provincial democratic election.


Following the 20th anniversary (in 2014) of its first democratic election, South Africa commemorated the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Despite the symbolic significance of the occasion, harsh realities were a reminder of the limits to the transformation since then. As more scandals emerged in the public domain, the political, economic and social landscape underwent some sobering checks and balances that tested the vision of the Rainbow Nation.


It was an intense year in South Africa’s domestic and international political and economic landscape. Following on from the fallout of the firing of Finance Minister Nhanhla Nene in December 2015, the Zuma administration faced a divisive political landscape enshrouded in economic uncertainty. The fifth local government elections took place. They were significant indicators of the mood of the electorate, and how voter behaviour was impacted by questions of political legitimacy, loyalty and the effect of a failing economy. Domestic political and economic affairs dominated the year, especially around issues that exposed the vulnerabilities of the ruling party and the Zuma administration.


The year began with spill over effects of unresolved issues and more complex anxieties about the ‘State of the Nation’. The country’s political, economic and social landscape was still shaking from ambiguities and contradictions around the Zuma presidency, further downgrades relating to the country’s credit rating status, an economy that seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse and an international relations agenda and identity that appeared to be hollowing out. The anc’s policy conference in June and its elective conference in December became the focus of every public debate and discussion forum among scholars and the general populace. Their outcomes had significant implications for the polity of the state in terms of governance and renewal, underlining the country’s transformation agenda.


This was one of the most tumultuous years in South Africa’s post-apartheid period. Characterised by a slowing economy, a mixed bag of highs and lows regarding the politics of the state to deepening unemployment, a technical recession, and what became known as a year of commissions, the year posed a significant test of the country’s democracy, identity, and role in regional and global politics. The ruling African National Congress (anc) faced internal fragmentation through power struggles between competing groups, and allegations of state capture dented its image. Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance (da) was occupied by its own internal battles, while the Economic Freedom Fighters (eff) continued to polarise the political landscape of the country with its populist rhetoric. Despite Ramaphosa’s popularity, his presidency remained constrained by a trust deficit in state institutions and by factional politics.


The year in review could best be characterised as one of relative highs and overwhelming lows. It marked a significant period in the country’s democratic history punctuated by the following key issues: the hosting of the sixth national and provincial general election; the ongoing inquiry into state corruption; a weakening economy; heightened tensions in relation to socioeconomic inequalities; a moment of national cohesion; a strategic reflection of the country’s overall role in global affairs; and a signalling of what some saw as a noteworthy trajectory in the country’s democratic consolidation under the Ramaphosa leadership.


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.


If 2020 was a year of mounting challenges, 2021 can be characterised as a year that tested the resolve of the body politic between the state and society. It was a year of unprecedented moments that not only saw the country’s democratic transition being visibly tested, but also exposed the ruling party’s identity and value proposition as the old liberation movement in the continent. State–society relations reached new depths of tension, while the economy continued to spiral into a deepening crisis. Against this background, the impact and trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic remained a critical disruptor to lives and livelihoods, while the socioeconomic landscape of the country remained vulnerable to governance deficits, financial malfeasance, deepening inequality, and rising levels of distrust, apathy, and frustration among the electorate in relation to government authorities.