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It has become a cliché to say that 2008 was an eventful year for South Africans whose national crises started long before the momentous global black October financial crash. Many of my overseas guests are interested in the topical events in South Africa and sometimes ask about the complicated and changing political landscape and the severe social problems we face. Here I have looked back at the events of 2008 in a wider South African context and have addressed some of the questions which have been asked of me during this year. Please take these personal and summarized responses from whence they come. Load-shedding South Africans began 2008 with the chaos of black-outs and load-shedding lasting from mid January through to April. The reason given by Eskom, the parastatal electricity provider, was routine summer maintenance without the back-up supply to enable the shutting down of certain power stations without disruption. Poor forward planning on the part of Government goes right back to the mid 1980s when the Apartheid Government ignored Eskom’s prediction of the electricity needs for a future growing economy. Post 1994 this lack of forward planning became even more serious with an increased demand for electricity from major new infrastructural developments, a dramatic rise in the number of homes newly electrified (from 58% to 80% post 1996), and increased housing density in the suburbs. Maintenance on power stations was historically kept to a minimum because of limited back-up supply and limited funding. It seems that in costing their electricity supply, historically Eskom neither included capital infrastructural costs nor ongoing maintenance costs. It was this pricing model which enabled South Africa consumers to pay one of the lowest rates globally for electricity. Understanding this history did not help to minimize the effects of being plunged into sudden darkness, the appalling traffic snarl-ups, instant and lengthy equipment shut-downs, or the financial costs of installing generators - all of which really impacted on South Africa’s national morale and psyche, let alone the national economy. It seems that load-shedding will begin again in early 2009 (although the talk is that Gauteng is to be excluded from this). There is also however, quite literally, light at the end of the tunnel. Eskom will invest R150 million over the next five years on upgrading the infrastructure of the country’s power supply. There is cause for concern however, at the reliance on coal power stations. The political front On the political front the year was filled with uncertainty during what has become known as the post-Polokwane era. At the ANC’s national conference at Polokwane in December 2007, Thabo Mbeki was replaced as the ANC president by Jacob Zuma which led to an unhealthy division of leadership between Zuma as ANC President and Mbeki as National President. Zuma remains a highly controversial figure: sacked by Mbeki in 2005 for being implicated in corruption with his former financial advisor Schabir Shaik; only to be charged himself with corruption in a case which was thrown out on a technicality in September 2006; in November 2007 a high court ruling cleared the way for evidence to be used against him in any future prosecution. In May 2006 he was acquitted of rape charges (which some claim was a set up by his political rivals) . A charismatic populist (love him or loathe him) he has no formal schooling and is everything Mbeki was not: approachable, anti-intellectual, an ethnic Zulu (he married his 4 wife in a traditional ceremony in January 2008), and is supported by the ANC Youth League and the Trade Unions. He has been credited with heading off violence and so a possible civil war in the early 1990s through his mediation between the Xhosa-dominated ANC and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). In September 2008 Judge Nicholson ruled (very controversially) that the decision to charge Zuma was unlawful because he had not been allowed to make representations before he was charged, and that there had been interference from President Mbeki. Nicholson then allowed the NPA leave to appeal and judgement on this case is to be delivered on 12 and his replacement within a week by the ANC’s deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe. Ostensibly unhappy with the way Mbeki was ousted, with Zuma’s populism and with the party’s ‘departure from ANC policy’, the party split and a new political party, called Congress of the People (COPE), emerged. Many analysts see this as a positive sign of an increasing maturity in a political democracy. Others see COPE as a political force formed not on principles of coherent policies, but on the interests of elitist members from the Mbeki regime who neither want to lose their power nor their benefits. Although there are already rumours of struggles for leadership within COPE, the split has certainly eroded the ANC’s majority status and has opened the way for interesting possible future alliances. And of course with the elections coming up in 2009 (date still to be announced) the political allegiances and ‘marriages’ are going to be fiercely contested. th th January. Nicholson’s September ruling led directly to Mbeki’s ousting as the nation’s president Meanwhile some of Motlanthe's actions have mirrored the highs and the lows of the South African context more widely. The appointment of Barbara Hogan as the Minister of Health has been greeted with huge relief. It appears that the days of AIDS denialism are finally over and that improvements to the failing public health system may be put in place. However Motlanthe’s firing of Vusi Pikoli, the Head of National Director of Public Prosecutions has been viewed with great skepticism. Many wonder if the possibility of the National Prosecuting Authority charging Zuma afresh, has not led to Pikoli’s removal. South African politics becomes more and more Byzantine in the sense of being extremely complicated and full of deception. The horrific xenophobic attacks in May 2008, instigated in the case of Greater Johannesburg by predominantly Zulu hostel dwellers, in an orchestrated fashion, (and often enabled by the police turning a blind eye), was probably the lowest point of South Africa’s year of 2008 and maybe even since 1994. First hand accounts of refugee camps and their mismanagement due to both bureaucratic ineptitude and what seemed like deliberate obstruction, along with the human devastation and suffering of so-called foreigners, remains deeply deeply shameful. I also have nothing to say that can begin to express my outrage and sadness at the Zimbabwean situation. I know a lot of Zimbabweans through various aspects of my work – both here in the guest house, through those who live in the immediate neighbourhood, and through my heritage work. They work tirelessly to try and support their immediate families back home (amid a completely collapsed health, education, transport and financial system). As the situation gets more dire, the community of people that each income provider supports both financially and through the transportation of basic food stuffs and other essentials, becomes larger and larger. In my immediate experience this is borne with an acceptance, a stoicism and a graciousness which is extraordinarily humbling. On the financial front This seems a strong positive for South Africa. Reckless lending and so overspending was curtailed in South Africa in June 2007 with the introduction of the National Credit Act. In addition we remained relatively insulated from the sub-prime crisis as South African financial institutions did not sell on debt. The rand has however devalued significantly, mainly against the strength of the dollar but also because many investors in the post October jitters have withdrawn money from emerging markets. Interest rates have just been cut by the Reserve Bank by ½ percent to 11.5%. It seems however that thanks to the regulation of our financial system it remains fundamentally sound. Social and Developmental Infrastructural development continued in 2008 particularly in the transport sector. R170 billion is being invested in the development of public transport for the 2010 World Cup and beyond; while Gauteng’s freeways are being upgraded at a cost of R55 billion and work continues on Johannesburg’s Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) System where 150 stations are planned. The first locomotives and coaches for the Gautrain Rapid Rail Link currently under construction between Johannesburg, Pretoria and OR Tambo International Airport were offloaded in Durban harbour in early December. Despite many negative comments about the 2010 World Cup Soccer, when FIFA president Sepp Blatter came to South Africa in September 2008 he was impressed with the way South Africa is dealing with its 2010 preparations. Of course 2010 brings not only the promise of infrastructural development but also great expectations of job creation and employment opportunities which hopefully will be fulfilled. Key living standard measures have shown that the proportion of households with access to electricity, water (62 to 88%), toilets (52 to 73%) and waste removal rose significantly between 2002 and 2008, backing evidence that conditions for South Africa’s poor are improving. Property ownership by blacks has increased by 60% since the late 1990s. As with unemployment, poverty appears to have peaked in the early part of this decade, and is now on the decrease. This can be attributed to relatively strong economic growth, which has resulted in more jobs being available. The mass roll-out of social grants in 2002 will also have contributed to the decline in the poverty rates in South Africa. However, levels of poverty and unemployment in South Africa are critically high, despite the country’s status as an upper middle income country, and the widespread retrenchments in the mining industry and the motor industry after the global financial crisis in October of 2008, plus the influx of desperate Zimbabweans have already worsened the situation of the poor. Poverty, corruption, crime, domestic violence, skills development, a reversal of the brain drain, (there is already a critical shortage of nurses, teachers, engineers, & certain specialist doctors amongst many other professions) and the improvement of the health and education systems remain some of the most immediate challenges to be addressed by Government and civil society. 2009 will be a challenging year.
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