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Thursday, 19 February 2015 02:00

South Africa: Never a Dull Moment!

If you’re looking for fascinating developments in politics, economics and philosophy, South Africa is your one-stop destination. It’s a melting pot of cultures, opportunities, entrepreneurial spirit and political tribulations.

In mid-February 2015, South Africans knew that the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) by President Jacob Zuma would be a highly controversial event. The Economic Freedom Front (EFF), vociferous opponents to Zuma’s ANC government, had threatened to disrupt proceedings if Zuma didn’t address calls for him to repay millions in tax-payers money, improperly spent on his private residence, called Nkandla.

So, when the speaker of Parliament, the ANC’s Baleka Mbete, refused to allow such questioning, she ended up with a house full of protesting opponents. Her heavy-handed response was to order police and security personnel to remove all EFF MPs from the house. They did so forcibly and violently.

At the same time, a jamming device was used to prevent members of the media from reporting on the shenanigans, which ironically were being televised live to the nation and the rest of the world. To express their disgust at the evening’s proceedings, all other opposition parties, including the Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party, then walked out of parliament in protest. This left President Zuma alone with his loyal ANC comrades to deliver his SONA.

Many see the events that night as evidence of South Africa’s lively democracy, where people are fighting fiercely to protect rights enshrined in South Africa’s forward-thinking constitution. The President, the Speaker and the ANC government are continually coming under fire for abuse of power, misuse of taxpayers’ money, corruption and, now, failing to uphold the constitutional separation of powers in Parliament. The Constitution, the legal system and government are constantly being tested to the maximum in South Africa’s vibrant democracy.

Criticism across the political spectrum is vehement and freedom of speech is passionately debated on an ongoing basis in South Africa by all people, young and old. Some call it frustrating and many are pessimistic, but the fast pace of change and the thrill of living in a land where people have come to expect the unexpected is infectious and exciting. It’s a dynamic land of infinite possibilities and unpredictable twists and turns.

A major hampering hand is the sluggish economy and the swelling tide of economic constraints on growth. These include mass unemployment, poverty, poor education and an inefficient public sector. Additional problems are an ailing national tax collection service and persistent xenophobic attacks against a constant flood of African immigrants, mostly illegal, from countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the DRC, Ethiopia and the Sudan. But perhaps the most serious threat to growth currently is the electricity crisis, manifesting itself in regular rolling blackouts, with widespread power outages on a regular basis across the country.

In his SONA, Zuma did voice government’s commitment to funding and stabilising Eskom, the country’s national electricity supplier. But he also skirted around a controversial issue regarding nuclear power, which many people believe is already a done deal with Russian suppliers – another underhanded and potentially scandalous deal at that.

None of this is really anything new, with some of Zuma’s supposed plans dating back up to two decades. What was new from SONA, however, was an announcement by Zuma banning foreigners from purchasing property in South Africa. Property specialists lambasted this view saying it was narrow-minded and would impact foreign investment as well as tourism negatively, particularly in important destinations like Cape Town and the Western Cape.

South Africa desperately needs robust economic growth if problems like poverty, housing, education, unemployment and local property ownership are to be addressed successfully. Current growth targets of 5% by 2019 seem like a shot in the dark post SONA and in view of embattled global prospects.

Zuma’s nine-point plan needs some petrol in its tank in order to take off and gain real momentum. As long as politicians and parliamentarians spend their time in punch-ups and stand-offs, real work and meaningful progress seem unlikely. And, with an increasingly pessimistic private sector growing more and more disillusioned, the economic outlook is at risk of being somewhat bleak.

But, as South Africa has shown the world time and time again, you can’t keep a good thing down! Devout patriotism and everlasting hope for the rainbow nation is an incredibly powerful force. And so, despite mounting challenges, the phenomenal African entrepreneurial spirit, the sense of hope and the determination among common South Africans to unite and fight for a better future could become stronger than ever.

Rather than marking the end, recent events in South African politics could herald a new day, for new leadership and a revival of growth prospects. Watch this space…

Published in South Africa