SA: A 'Plan B' type of country

On so many levels it has probably been a year worth forgetting. At the time of writing, global leaders were battling to thrash out a deal on climate change in the Peruvian capital, Lima. In far off Australia, several people were being taken hostage in a Sydney café and no one is any closer to finding out what happened to the ill-fated Malaysian airlines flight MH370 and the shooting down of flight MH17 over the Ukraine has brought more questions than answers and a tragic loss of life.

Ebola continues to pose a threat in parts of West Africa and 11 families still await the repatriation of the bodies of loved ones from Nigeria after the collapse of TB Joshua's fundamentalist church in Lagos.

For many of these families closure will never come. In the United States the conversation about race stumbles along incoherently. 2014 will be remembered for Ferguson and Eric Garner.

And here in South Africa, we have had our fair share of that which we would rather forget. Our own conversations about race were played out in ways which were both inexplicable ('has-been South African singer sues puppet') or the three separate incidents in Cape Town where black people were victims of racist attacks. And we understand then how far we have yet to travel before we see each other as fully human and deserving of the same rights and privileges. But incidents such as a young white man urinating on a black man don't simply happen out of nowhere and we wonder afresh how we can deal with the structural racism that creates the inequality and indignity across our land? In Cape Town itself this plays out in a variety of subtle and complicated ways and sometimes not so subtle ways. The sanitation crisis we find ourselves is one such example of structural indignity, one might say.

On the party political front, our levels of debate seem to have sunk ever lower as we watched Parliament descend into chaos in August and November, with all so-called protocol being thrown out of the window.

Post elections, the ANC has felt the pressure from a more united, brazen opposition and has looked frankly, at sea and insecure.

As EFF leader Julius Malema calls President Zuma a 'thief of note' in his address to the EFF People's Assembly, we cannot help but cast our minds back to the Nkandla saga which shows, at the very least, our president's inability to account for the spending of public money and how very comfortable he is with excess and largesse. The ANC in Parliament went to extreme lengths to protect the president's actions from any scrutiny while minions and bureaucrats will no doubt have to shoulder the blame. At the centre of the fight for accountability is Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector. The ANC spared her nothing as they sought to protect the networks of patronage that Zuma represents. And with the attacks on her office, came a further undermining of the rule of law. Yet, Madonsela has stood brave and firm and one senses that the Nkandla issue may well cause an eventual unraveling for President Zuma which he did not predict.

So it's been that sort of year in South Africa; a year of little progress on the economic and social development front, constant threats of further ratings agency downgrades, an electricity crisis we are being encouraged to blame on apartheid and call a 'challenge' not a 'crisis'. It has been a year in which those in power preferred secrecy to openness despite Jacob Zuma's rather contradictory comments as chair of the Open Government Partnership. The controversial Protection of State Information Bill, or 'Secrecy Bill' sits in the president's tray, unsigned. The year has also been marked by attempts to silence those whose voices cause discomfort - and this has not only been a hallmark of parts of the state but also of some corporate institutions who believe their fortunes are tied to the ANC. The idea of 'one truth' and 'one voice' instead of a diversity of voices and opinions is one that threatens our democracy in ways that perhaps we do not yet fully understand.

As to the arms deal, we are no closer to the truth as the Seriti Commission seems to be doing a hatchet job for those who wield power and influence politically. The Marikana Commission continues slowly as National Police Commissioner, Riyah Phiyega inexplicably keeps her job.

But the year must surely belong to the state-owned enterprises in the midst of a political battle marked by cronyism and patronage. We need to admit that we simply do not have the best people running SAA, the SABC, the SA Post Office and Eskom.

Until we are able to deal decisively with the under-qualified and over-paid executives running our state-owned enterprises, we will continue to battle inefficiency and a slow state unable to deliver on the National Development Plan.

One has some sympathy for deputy President Cyril Rampahosa charged with fixing the mess yet it may well be another genius masterstroke from Zuma. Could Zuma be setting his possible successor up for failure?

The split in Cosatu, the call for a United Front, will make politics in 2015 all the more interesting while the ANC succession battle rages on- yet again. And then there is the small matter of the local government elections in 2016. Let's watch for more rhetoric and a possibly panicked ANC trying to do damage control against a more buoyant opposition in Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela metro, amongst others.

So, the picture is of a pretty grim year which most of us would want to close the door on. Yet, for all its challenges and difficulties, it is ordinary South Africans who somehow keep doing the work of building democratic communities and spaces for expression and protest in diverse ways. For every repugnant act of violence or thoughtless political statement, there are South Africans everywhere making things work, creating, inventing and keeping our economy going.

As the lights literally went out on that 'stage 3B Saturday' a few weeks ago, ordinary citizens shrugged their shoulders and carried on as far as possible doing what they do. They may have whinged (another national past-time) but they made a plan. We are that sort of 'Plan B' country.

We probably need less of 'Plan B' and more of the Master Plan but one senses that might be difficult to forge even in the year ahead as we brace for a bit more of the same.

Until then, a particular kind of peaceful silence has fallen; that of holidaying politicians. There is nothing else to be done then but to put the year behind us. South Africans tend to pack it up, in taxis, in cars, buses or hitchhiking come December. Despite our diversity and the inequality that threatens us so, we are a country of roamers and travellers always seeking the next opportunity with an uncanny ability to simply live in the moment.

For now, that seems a pretty good idea though we would do well to increase our attempts to travel together more effectively in 2015, as we seek solutions to create the country our democratic founders envisaged and which the Constitution articulates so clearly.

Judith February will be packing it up as well and this column will resume on 15 January 2015

February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).