2017: 'The same procedure as every year'




We will need new calendars and diaries, but that’s about it. The change from one year to another is a bureaucratic process, for the most part. But every year, like that terrible film Dinner For One (1963), the same procedure as every year, folks imagine and invest in a change of date signalling a change of fortune.

Last year, 2016, was not an easy year. In both the local and political arenas, events took an uneasy turn. Of course, that was hardly exceptional, but the local government elections in South Africa, and the referendum and election results in the UK and the US respectively, signalled a new direction in politics. They seemed to many to signal the end of an era of hope, and to augur in the return of politics many thought had been left behind in the 1930s and 1940s.

Many will recall 2016 for its celebrity deaths. While there may not have been more deaths, the significance of those who died in defining the cultural landscape across many Anglophone societies in the last decades of the last millennium and the first of this may account for the impression that it had been a bleak year. Many of the faces and voices many of us had grown up with, people whose music defined our teenage years and early adulthood, men and women whose faces, projected onto giant screens, acted out desire and loss and terror and joy and ecstasy, thereby both teaching us what those could mean, and giving us non-sacred symbols to represent, by metonymy and synecdoche, humanity in all its messy complexity.

Hope is what defines our humanity, the hope for better things, for a change that improves our lives. We thrive on it. Going into 2017 with the weight of 2016 and its losses and disappointments, both personally and politically, both privately and publicly, may lead many to have unreasonable expectations of the year ahead. The point is not to snuff out the hope that gave rise to those expectations, but to ameliorate the expectations, to temper our desires of this year, and to demand more of ourselves, politically and personally, to ensure that we work towards fulfilling the hopes born of the past and vested in the future.

In the political arena 2017 is only deceptively a quiet year. In South Africa it will be the first year of new municipal governments, and the year in which the African National Congress tries to weather the storm of its internal dynamics in its leadership succession processes. On the global scale the United Nations has a new secretary-general in Antonio Guterres, and for the global governance body in its eighth decade has much hard work ahead of it, including the management of the looming global conflicts which are at this moment still just the second Cold War. But the entry of Donald Trump into the White House on 20 January signals a change in the world’s pre-eminent military power which cannot easily be assessed at this point.

Thus much hangs in the balance. A 105-year-old organisation will be tested for how fast and how well it can adapt to a changing political environment if it is to recover from the 2016 electoral shocks far enough in advance of the 2019 general elections in South Africa. A 241-year-old republic which started out as an experiment in the expression of human liberty as a political ideal must confront its internal dynamics that have led to the election of a president who seems to have a problem with impulse control and a very thin skin.

But, of course, it is also a year like any other. People are sending their children to school and to university for the first time. How that will work out in South Africa, where the call for more equitable and better quality education across the spectrum, and for the costs to be revisited over the last couple of years, remains to be seen. The president’s fees commission must report back by mid-year. The brutal and brutalising scenes which played out across campuses last year are not ones anyone would want to see repeated, and certainly not escalated. Post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa cannot afford to propose securocratic solutions to political problems. We learned the terrible cost of that route in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

We like to think that as the fireworks signalled the end of one year and the start of the next, our way of being in the world, our way of seeing it, changed. But as John Berger, the writer and artist showed us, the way we regard the world relies on a long history of being taught to see in specific ways. It takes more than fireworks and goodwill to change the world, or even the way we see it.  If we want more from 2017 than we got from 2016, only our work, individual and political, can bring that about. 

Nothing about the year ahead will be easy. None of the challenges we did not resolve last year will be magically erased by a simple change of date. Political problems require political solutions. And political work is not just about voting, or party membership. In a democratic order, political work is a matter of every day active citizenship, and in that regard, this year requires the same procedure as every other year. We must familiarise ourselves with the architecture of the state we opted for in 1994, and have lived in with different measures of success over the last 22 years, and figure out where we have fallen short of our initial promises to ourselves and our children, and work towards fulfilling the promises.

It may just be a change of calendar in some respects, but it also offers a symbolic moment to recommit to old ideals, not just to articulate new ones. This may be an opportunity to refresh, rather than restart, and to renew old commitments, rather than to merely outline new ones.

Still, happy 2017.