South Africans are no longer amused

If I were to review the year 2015 in South Africa, I would call it the “year of the giggle.” At numerous times this year when the country faced both internal and external challenges, that was the response of South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma.

What is wrong, one may ask, with a head of state with a sense of humor? For many countries that might seem refreshing. But in South Africa’s case this year the president’s public laughter has occurred in contexts that gave little cause for genuine amusement.


Zuma’s state of the nation address in February had been a debacle—with angry opposition parties ejected from Parliament or storming out in protest over the use of public funds for his private residence. Watching it, I wondered if the president’s giggling was a nervous tic or an expression of contempt.

If the former, it suggested that he was all too aware of the millions of dollars in misappropriations that had gone into renovating his home. If the latter, it was an expression of contempt for his parliamentary opposition, government oversight and the people of South Africa. I suspect it was a mixture of both. But now even a hitherto docile public, fed on the myth that the African National Congress liberated South Africa single-handedly, is fast losing patience.

We have seen a decline in key public utilities; both electricity and water have been mismanaged to the point of collapse. While the roots of the electricity crisis lie in the pre-1994 failure to plan ahead, to take account of the extension of the grid to every corner of the country and to build new power stations accordingly, 21 years have been wasted instead of being used to build infrastructure and maintain what already existed.

In the rush to make the national power supplier “representative” of the people as a whole—a valid point, it must be noted—many skilled white professionals were given early retirement packages, albeit generous ones. But their skills were lost, with little view to who might replace them in the medium term. The result is a small core of dedicated professionals stretched beyond their limits trying to maintain an already inadequate set-up. The upshot of this has been a year of rolling blackouts damaging to industry and frustrating to citizens.

Ditto for the situation in the water sector. Poor maintenance has led in the last few months to a looming water crisis. Water scientists warn that many of the reservoirs, water purification plants and supply systems have not been well maintained. Some warn that this could have serious public health consequences. In addition, South Africa is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in living memory. Farming is in crisis. Many fear that basic foodstuffs will run short; at the very least, prices of these staples are about to skyrocket.

Just a few days into December, the country was dealt another blow. Zuma fired the minister of finance, Nhlanha Nene, because he refused to bow to political pressure and sanction the revision of a deal to buy new aircraft for South African Airways—a state-owned enterprise. The airline’s board chairperson, Dudu Myeni (who is also chair of the Jacob Zuma Foundation), was unhappy and appears to have used her personal relationship with the president to force Nene’s removal.

Nene had also hesitated to back a multimillion-dollar nuclear power plant deal in which the president was personally invested. Zuma was not happy. Zuma giggled. Nene was gone; the country’s currency plummeted; and an inexperienced mayor of a small backwater town was given the finance portfolio.

Add to this half-baked policy decisions on matters like visas for holiday-makers, a trigger-happy police force and the growing sense that corruption in government, public administration and business is rife. President Zuma may still giggle in public; South Africans are not amused.

In 2016 South Africa will host municipal elections. In many cities pre-election polls suggest tight contests for previously safe A.N.C. seats. The right and far left predict massive gains for their parties. Will this happen? It is possible that by playing up “struggle” mythology and promising increased welfare grants, the A.N.C. will still emerge victorious despite its poor delivery of basic services.

But one thing is certain. President Zuma will have little to laugh about in 2016. Ditto, I suspect, for the rest of us.

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