The year 2019 was eventful, filled with significant moments of both hope and anxiety. Hardly a day went by without an issue that captured our imaginations as citizens and raised our levels of anxiety. The gains made in the early years of SA’s democracy seemed to be under severe threat last year. Thankfully, the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup and for a moment the nation reconnected with its essence. It was a year that provided evidence of the danger of democratic backsliding, and on several occasions powerful politicians suffered embarrassing setbacks. These were well documented .
As we begin the new year, what lessons about politics can we take from 2019?
1. Don’t mess with the people
South Africans decided enough is enough and took responsibility, as individuals and groups, to hold the government accountable. We observed significant citizen-led activism with admirable victories throughout the country. Citizens became bolder in demanding better services and holding the government to account for its actions. Citizens refused to be passive while things were getting out of hand.
2. The courts cannot be manipulated to serve political agendas
South African courts were very busy last year and will be again this year. Indeed, they played an interventionist role, educating citizens on various aspects of the law while at the same time reminding us that no-one is above the law. They stood firm and resisted pressure from political parties, even under difficult circumstances when they had to deal with high-profile, sensitive cases.
3. Multinational companies remain part of the problem
The negative social, environmental and political impact of some multinational companies operating in the country is well known, especially when it comes to mining, and abetting corruption to secure lucrative contracts from government officials.
4. Concerted efforts by civil society can save us from potentially harmful government actions
Civil society was very vocal last year, disrupting any attempt by the government to promote or implement legislation that would harm citizens in one way or another. We saw increased pressure on the government through targeted litigation. Civic activism brought hope to many ordinary citizens that they could prevail over challenges to their own well-being as well as that of the economy and the environment.
5. Coalition politics were fragile
Attempts by opposition political parties to form ruling partnerships in major metros cracked at the seams. They could hardly agree on issues and, where they did, agreements shifted constantly as the interests of individual parties changed.
So, what can we expect in 2020?
1. Increased citizen-led activism
The general public will be more and more ready to pressure the government to deliver on its promises and improve governance at the local level. As they did last year, citizens will take direct action.
2. Increased civil society activism
Civil society will step up demands for the government to deal with corruption in both the public and private sectors, and for ethical leadership at all levels of governance.
3. Increased activity in the courts
Courts will be even busier as opposition political parties litigate against corrupt political leadership.
4. Increased civic- and citizen-centred political education
Civil society organisations will work to prepare voters for next year ’s local government elections. An informed citizenry is essential, and political ignorance is costly.
5. Opposition parties will seek to strengthen their coalition efforts
Ahead of the 2021 local government elections, opposition parties will work twice as hard to persuade the electorate that they have a plausible vision for better local government, while the ANC will seek to retain its support base and better manage its internal divisions . The ruling party also needs to speed up delivery of basic services —sustainably and equitably —and staunch the fiscal haemorrhaging at state-owned enterprises.
Without doubt, 2020 will be an even busier year than 2019. It will require significant levels of vigilance from all of us —the public, civil society organisations, opposition parties and the ruling party —as we encourage active citizenship and hold each other accountable for our actions and commitments. Together, let’s make 2020 great.