Goodbye 2014: It was the worst of times
Nkandla. Oscar Pistorius. Elections 2014. Julius Malema. Pansy Tlakula. Mamphela Ramphele. Zwelinzima Vavi. Hlaudi Motsoeneng. #PayBackTheMoney. Senzo Meyiwa. Eskom. Shrien Dewani. Cosatu. And always, Jacob Zuma. They occupied the news and our minds, and defined the world we live in. It was a never-ending big news year that shone the spotlight on the ethics of our president, examined whether our star athlete, and one-time idol, was a cold-blooded killer, and saw a significant shift in South African politics, with the Economic Freedom Fighters now firmly ensconced in the milieu. We may be a grown up 20-year-old democracy, but this year, we reached the furthest point away from the nation we were meant to be.
Wednesday 17 December 2014 was a momentous day in history. US President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes to his country's policy on Cuba, restoring diplomatic relations after 50 years of hostility between the two nations. As Obama spoke, Cuban President Raul Castro was simultaneously addressing his nation, saying there were still difficult issues to work through but the two countries had to learn to live with their differences in a "civilised manner".
In Havana, church bells rang out as the news reverberated around the world. It was a welcome and rare good news story to close a torrid year of violence and slaughter across the globe, from Palestine to Ukraine, Nigeria to Iraq and Syria. The announcement was made a day after the world stood stunned at the massacre of 141 people, 132 of them schoolchildren, in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Obama said in his address that they were making the changes "because it is the right thing to do".
"I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result."
With this dramatic move, Obama has been able to switch the negative tide around his presidency and perhaps even rescue his legacy. He credited the intervention of Pope Francis, whom he said made a personal appeal to him and Castro. "In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is," Obama said.
Perhaps South Africa can claim a small piece of the credit too. At Nelson Mandela's memorial service at FNB stadium in December last year, there was an awkward but historic handshake between Obama and Castro on the stage in the presence of world leaders and with a global audience watching. The moment was credited to "Madiba magic", but appeared to be simply a polite gesture between the two. Now we know it happened while secret talks were already underway. Still, the first public gesture between the presidents of America and Cuba happened on our soil.
Yes, we are desperate for good news and to share in a big moment in world history once again. That desperation was quite obvious in the way the country reacted to Rolene Strauss winning the Miss World pageant, as if it represented a pinnacle of human achievement. We do not have much to celebrate, apart from temporary reliefs like the petrol price heading downwards and the performance of Bafana Bafana heading upwards.
South Africa has had a really difficult year. The Oscar Pistorius trial had us holed up in his bathroom for months, trying to figure out if he was telling the truth about what he felt while he was killing Reeva Steenkamp. While we were engrossed in Pistorius's travails, the Marikana Commission dragged on, still tormenting the victims. The evidence of a range of political leaders and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega showed callous disregard for the lives lost and the families left to pick up the pieces of their broken lives.
Marikana continues to be a shame from which we fail to recover.
The fifth democratic elections came and went, with Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele crashing out of politics and Julius Malema and his EFF troupe crashing into Parliament. From the moment the EFF showed up in red overalls and domestic worker uniforms, they turned Parliament on its head, and it has been a non-stop fiesta of protests and head butting with the presiding officers. It might have invigorated politics in a previously unseen way, but it has also been an exhausting few months, with little to show except footage of riot police stomping around the National Assembly.
Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) chairperson Pansy Tlakula fought to keep her job after Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found that she had acted improperly in the lease deal for the IEC headquarters. She eventually surrendered and resigned, much like how SABC chairperson Ellen Tshabalala did last week after her fake qualifications scandal.
The person who has staying power and the amazing ability to survive - rivalled only by President Jacob Zuma - is SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng. He has been able to shrug off a Thuli Madonsela takedown and is still reigning supreme at the public broadcaster.
Zwelinzima Vavi is also hanging onto his job after the high court reversed his suspension from Cosatu. But now that he is back behind his desk at Cosatu House, his chief support crew, metalworkers' union Numsa, have been expelled from the federation. The fallout in Cosatu has seen the federation neglect its worker constituency and become completely consumed with its own self-destruction. The scene is set for another year of turmoil in the federation as it heads into its 30th year of existence and an elective conference.
Numsa is determined to go its own way politically, but is still fighting to hold on to Cosatu. It is determined to break the ANC's dominance in politics through various fronts, including a civil society network organisation, the United Front, and possibly a workers' party in the future. But Malema continues to capture the space to the left of the ANC and is now agitating his constituency to occupy farms and mines. It will be difficult to contest that space when he is already whipping militant behaviour into frustrated communities.
The ANC is still caught in an economic policy conundrum, preaching radical economic change while government is pursuing implementation of parts of the National Development Plan and National Treasury is trying to keep them all grounded. South Africa's economic performance is weakening and the deficit growing, while embattled state-owned companies are in constant need of rescue packages.
South Africa is on the brink of crisis due to the unstable power supply, as energy utility Eskom deals with failing plants and shortages of funds, diesel, coal and water. South Africans are learning to live with the constant threat of load shedding, with every aspect of our lives disrupted by rolling blackouts.
The power situation has elevated despondency about our country, as the fabric of our society continues to be shredded by violent crime and the ineptitude evident in the criminal justice system. It is bad enough when toddler Taegrin Morris meets a horrific death, dragged for kilometres when his parents' car was hijacked, but even worse when police bungle the case by arresting the wrong person.
The death of South African football captain Senzo Meyiwa also impacted on the national psyche, showing us how everyone is susceptible to violent crime, even those in the prime of their lives, proudly serving our nation. Again the police bungled the case, and there has been no progress or sense of justice since they arrested the wrong man. The weakness of the criminal justice system was also exposed in the Shrien Dewani murder trial, which chewed up an enormous amount of resources with the state not being able to prove that he had a case to answer.
We now look back on a mass of dead bodies that the justice system failed.
The biggest furore of 2014, however, was Nkandla. The issue exploded when Madonsela released her report on the R246 million security upgrades at the president's private residence in March, containing damning evidence of manipulation of procedures, inflation of costs and failures by the president and members of his Cabinet. Despite the public uproar and protests from the opposition in Parliament, Madonsela's recommendations have been disregarded and there has been no political accountability for the project.
President Zuma is the person at the centre of the Nkandla scandal and it has shown him to be unworthy of the high office he holds. He has allowed state funds to be spent on his private home and refuses to account or reimburse the state for the benefits he will enjoy in perpetuity. #PayBackTheMoney has become part of the national lexicon, courtesy of the EFF, as a reminder of what is now a sickness in our society: abuse of the state for personal benefit.
Both the ANC and government have been diminished, having to constantly shield Zuma from accountability. His poor leadership and disrespect for the public has dragged our nation into a bottomless pit.
This was meant to be a milestone year, 20 years of freedom and democratic rule. Instead it has made a scandal-fatigued and crime besieged nation question what we are about.
We are Mandela-less and soulless. We abuse and kill the vulnerable among us, and then leave them behind, as a new horror emerges. From Reeva Steenkamp to the mineworkers of Marikana, their violent deaths say much about the society we live in. We destroy organisations that stood up to the might of Apartheid, and those designed to hold up the pillars of our democracy, all in service to the political overlord.
For the five years Daily Maverick has been in existence, we brought you the stories that define our lives and the time we live in. Most of them have left us despondent, and we too yearn for a time when a South African president will also say: We are making changes because it the right thing to do.
What is that right thing though? As we bring a close to this difficult year, that answer is indistinct. What we know is that we are not the nation we are meant to be and we are straying further from the dream of "a better life for all".
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.