South Africa: A year of ups and downs
For the democracy at the bottom of Africa, 2019 will be known as the year it held another successful election, made efforts to fight corruption in business and government, and won the Rugby World Cup – all of which united South Africans behind a single purpose. However, the year was also punctuated by more crippling blackouts, a weaker economy and a new wave of xenophobic attacks.
A year in the life of any country is filled with key moments – both good and bad.
That’s no more true than in South Africa, where behind almost every success lurks another tragic failure.
In May, South Africa successfully held its sixth election since democracy was established. It was free, fair and peaceful.
More than 26 million registered voters were able to choose from 48 political parties nationally, offering a wide array of political homes. Citizens voted en masse and despite their varied political leanings, most were hopeful that their ballot would make a difference.
Predictably, the African National Congress (ANC) won the poll but it was handed a severely reduced majority after securing less than 58% of the vote.
Many citizens voiced their frustration about a weak economy and rampant corruption. The ANC says it got the message.
“We have learnt our lesson. We have heard the people of South Africa. We have heard the very clear message of what they expect from us,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa after hearing the election results.
Ahead of the 8 May poll, thousands of angry residents took to the streets to remind the ANC and other parties about their failed promises to the people. The country’s economic hub, Gauteng Province, bore the brunt of service delivery protests.
Ramaphosa’s re-election has delivered a great deal of hope to a country that continues to battle systemic challenges. However, critics also warn against succumbing to the political rhetoric.
Poverty, unemployment and inequality remain South Africa’s most persistent problems.
“We must commit to a different path of a South Africa we aspire for ourselves and for future generations. A South Africa, where poverty and unemployment, will not be a defining feature of our nation,” said deputy president David Mabuza during government’s Christmas message.
While the economy continues to falter, economists are predicting a technical recession and a downgrade in South Africa’s sovereign credit rating early next year.
The economy contracted 3.2% in the first quarter of 2019. It grew 3.1% in the second quarter, and in the third quarter, it shrunk by 0.6%. That is according to the official statistical agency – Stats SA.
Major losses in the mining and manufacturing industry have significantly weighed down the economy. The other sectors that have performed poorly include transport, storage and communication sectors.
Collapse of state companies
The failure of state power utility Eskom to provide reliable power has damaged multiple sectors of the economy.
In December, Eskom escalated its power outages – what it calls ‘load shedding’ – to an unprecedented level (Stage 6), cutting 6,000MW nationally. The rolling blackouts were felt across several sectors, forcing operations to shut down at major mines and small businesses.
The government finally placed the national carrier, South African Airways (SAA), under business rescue after several years of losses.
SAA has racked up more than R28bn ($2bn) in losses in over a decade. Around 10,000 jobs are now on the line. Ramaphosa’s government hopes to save the business by extending billions of rands in bailouts and government guarantees.
During Ramaphosa’s election campaign, he promised to clamp down on corruption and clean up state institutions.
Police have made several high-profile arrests, including senior Eskom officials. Former president Jacob Zuma is also standing trial for corruption related to the multibillion-rand arms deal.
Workers are still waiting for the findings of a crucial report from a judicial commission of inquiry into the state asset manager, th ePublic Investment Corporation (PIC).
The commission probed corruption allegations against PIC that resulted in nearly R20bn in losses at the Government Employees Pension Fund – Africa’s largest pension fund.
One of the major successes for workers this year comes from a multimillion-dollar class action lawsuit.
Hundreds of thousands of former gold miners from across Southern Africa who contracted silicosis – a fatal lung illness – after working underground stand to benefit from a R5bn payout from their former employers.
Unity in diversity
One of the more enduring moments of the year for South Africans comes from the Rugby World Cup victory in Japan.
When Siya Kolisi – the country’s first black captain – raised the Webb Ellis Cup, it was another symbolic milestone in the last 25 years of democracy. Originally a sport of the minority white elite, rugby is now seen as a great unifier. It is played in well-manicured suburbs to brutally impoverished townships.
This legacy dates back to 1995 when the country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela donned a rugby jersey. It was a grand gesture by a liberation icon to mend years of racial divisions under apartheid.
However, a wave of violent attacks on African migrants has damaged this spirit of reconciliation.
In September, at least five people died during the violence around Johannesburg. Local experts argue that SA’s rampant inequality – among the worst in the world – is to blame for igniting conflict between locals and foreigners.
The bottom line: 2019 has been a year of highs and lows in South Africa. And despite the tragedies, there is an enduring feeling that thrives among those who live here: hope.