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OPINION: A very dry season awaits 2016

It was with a sigh of relief that we left 2015 behind having had just about enough of our fractious politics and on-again-off-again finance ministers. Yet, there is nothing magical about the Christmas break or summer holidays. South Africa simply presses 'pause' on its politics - or maybe not.

In the midst of the heatwave and New Year's festivities, we had Penny Sparrow spewing racism. But, enough has been said about Sparrow and her specific form of bigotry. She is not alone and represents the demons at the surface of South African society which we have still not rid ourselves of more than 20 years after the end of apartheid. That the Sparrows of the world surprise us is probably the greater indictment on our living as if 'the other' does not exist even amid ever-deepening levels of inequality.

The question, of course, is how to deal with racism and that thorny issue of freedom of expression. In a very South African turn of events, the government's response became 'let's legislate', while others pointed to the Constitution in circumscribing the limits to freedom of expression. How do we find the balance between respect for one another, the outlawing of racist/hate speech and then freedom of expression? It seems very tricky in an environment where the state has already shown very worrying tendencies to shut down debate and the free flow of information.

This past week, for instance, a billboard with the wording ' Zuma must fall' appeared in Long Street, Cape Town. The immediate cry from the ANC was that it was 'blatantly racist' against President Zuma. ANC members subsequently tore down the billboard. It is hard to see how the words 'Zuma must fall' can be construed as racist and not the expression of a political viewpoint. The ANC has argued that Zuma was elected by the majority and therefore any argument that he should leave office is anti-democratic and racist. That, of course, is disingenuous.

Anyone who attended the ANC's Polokwane conference in 2007 saw the visual hand signals, so often used in football, calling for Thabo Mbeki to go. These signals were constantly made during the conference. Was that racist? It is that sort of knee-jerk invocation of racism that could have a dampening effect on freedom of expression particularly around election time. That someone has been democratically elected does not and should not insulate him or her from criticism. A democracy is a cacophony of noise and differing ideas. We should all be bold enough to embrace those. Is the ANC so insecure in power that it cannot brook criticism of its president? Besides, the simple democratic principle is that President Zuma governs on behalf of all citizens, not only those who elected him. It's a curious thing since the ANC leadership itself is divided over Zuma's presidency and the damage he has caused to democratic institutions and our economy, specifically over the past year.

Given this sort of polarised debate, how will we find the balance between the right of freedom of expression and some common ground on what actually constitutes racist or hate speech? Government might legislate, but legislation is a limited response to what is a broader challenge in an unequal and fractious society.

Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Wits, pleaded for thoughtfulness too last week as students continued their #FeesMustFall campaign across some campuses. It was in essence a plea for balance in the way in which we debate and speak to each other. Expression has come in often-destructive forms, with students barricading campuses and then the inevitable heavy-handed police action. Government's response yet again seemed mixed. When all else fails, a commission of inquiry into higher education fees must surely be the solution? It will take nearly a year for that work to be completed. What will happen in the meantime? Can we be thoughtful about our resources and demands for free higher education? Can we all listen one to the other and find that elusive compromise? That remains an open question in a world of absolute demands and student walk-outs.

We cannot look to the ANC to lead in the battle for ideas, or for balance for that matter. Its 104th birthday celebrations seemed to be lost in the news cycle, apart from Marius Fransman's alleged dalliances. Yet, we did see the ANC trawl out an array of traditional leaders, presumably to shore up support ahead of the local government elections.

Pravin Gordhan, in the real world, is trying to manfully save SAA and stave off a recession.

And while we are watching our superficially stitched societal compromise come undone in so many ways, South Africa is facing one of its worst droughts in decades. We seem mostly to be blissfully unaware of precisely what this will mean for food prices. The drought is having a devastating effect on farms and small towns across our country. In some areas children are drinking sewage water out of sheer desperation, while Free State farmers pray for rain. In part, the drought is a result of not taking proper care of infrastructure, not building sufficient dams and then a rather slow response to the challenges farmers are facing as well as over-grazing and other poor farming practices.

What this drought is doing to small towns and farmers, in particular black small-scale farmers, is nothing short of catastrophic. Those that were profitable before are now in dire straits. Gordhan has said that tackling the drought is an 'absolute priority' for government, but is this too little too late and do we have the money to actually support embattled farmers? Many municipalities have simply been sleeping through the crisis hoping it will resolve itself.

One would have imagined also that President Zuma prioritising this issue in his last parliamentary question time, yet his responses were predictably routine.

Farmers across the country seem to be doing their own rescue and some companies and citizens have assisted by transporting feed and donating money for feed and water.

The water crisis makes the electricity crisis seem bearable and even less urgent. Living off the grid and alternative energy sources can be explored, but when the taps run dry, pretty much everything stops.

It's been a chastening way to start the year. If we start importing maize, the effects on the poor will be most severe. The drought, though, has also given rise to some extraordinary acts of generosity between farmers, local communities and those who are simply too poor to buy water.

And so amid the hashtag revolutions, it's also easy to forget the inequality and deep suffering in the very heart of the country, where cattle feed and crops grow and where black and white farmers alike pray for rain. It is where life is both simple and complex at the same time.

In so many ways, one can intuit that 2016 is going to be a very dry season. What we do with the odd patches of rain will be crucial.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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