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What to watch out for in 2019




Next year, there will be celebration and some introspection as South Africa celebrates 25 years of freedom. We commence our third two-year stint on the United Nations Security Council, and the country’s sixth democratic elections for national and provincial leadership since 1994 is expected in May 2019.

Had Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma won the party leadership in December 2017, the African National Congress (ANC) would have faced a tough test in the 2019 polls. But I cannot now see the party dipping below 50%. President Cyril Ramaphosa has shrewdly avoided a major split by keeping all factions on side, albeit retaining much dead wood in his Cabinet. This is in spite of widespread disappointment with the ANC’s delivery record, deep-set corruption, and apparent impunity for the politically powerful (Malusi Gigaba aside).

What damage has been done to the Democratic Alliance (DA) by Helen Zille’s colonialism tweets; Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba’s gaffes; and the drawn-out battle with former Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille? The vote will show whether the DA can continue its incremental growth.

Besides the Western Cape, I don’t expect good results for De Lille’s new party, Good. She’ll prove as disappointing as Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang SA was in 2014.

Perhaps the biggest question is how strong the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will emerge after the vote. Gauteng will be the tightest provincial race, with an ANC loss possible. Will the DA and EFF join forces again to oust the ANC as they did in several key cities in 2016? Or has the EFF moved irrevocably closer to the ANC, as shown by the land-expropriation-without-compensation question?

Ramaphosa will continue to face Herculean economic and social problems in his first elected term: low growth, lack of business confidence, fears about property rights, a volatile currency, crippling unemployment, and rising crime.

His rousing calls to the Jewish community to support job creation and put their skills to work for the good of the country are likely to be offset by bitterness and despondency if the ANC finally gets the government to downgrade diplomatic ties with Israel. At this stage, there is no indication that South Africa will send a new ambassador to replace Sisa Ngombane in Tel Aviv in 2019. The recent Hamas-ANC memorandum of understanding similarly bodes ill for any warmer Israel-South Africa relations.

Israel’s security concerns will continue into 2019, on both its southwestern and northern flanks. Another military incursion into Gaza cannot be ruled out, especially if Iran-sponsored Hamas steps up its rocket attacks on southern Israel.

The recent discovery of tunnels burrowed into Israel from territory controlled in southern Lebanon by another of Iran’s proxies, Hezbollah, may well prompt Israeli military action inside Lebanon itself. Israel’s attempt in 2006 to destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon ended inconclusively after 34 days of vicious fighting. The Syrian civil war is winding down to a costly and bruising victory for Bashar Al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers. Instability will persist on the Israel-Syrian frontier, where Hezbollah has been active. And will President Donald Trump’s vaunted Middle East peace plan materialise, and succeed?

Israel faces Knesset elections in 2019 – the only question is when. They must be held by 5 November, or earlier if the government collapses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition now holds the narrowest possible majority: just 61 of 120 Knesset seats.

In this climate, I believe the incumbent strong-man Netanyahu is likely to prevail in the election – if he can continue to fend off his legal problems. Beset by scandal and looming corruption charges, will Netanyahu survive? There is no obvious heir-apparent within Likud, though little-known ministerial names like Gideon Sa’ar, Israel Katz, and Gilad Erdan have been bandied about. Further afield, other party leaders Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, or Yair Lapid are unlikely to muster enough support to become prime minister. The once-mighty left that dominated Israeli politics from 1948 appears rudderless and out of ideas. Smaller ethnic or religious parties will continue to be kingmakers, squeezing heavy concession from coalition partners.

Gazing elsewhere, it is unclear exactly how Britain’s departure from the European Union will unfold. If Theresa May’s Conservative government falls due to Brexit, a win for Labour under the anti-Semitic Jeremy Corbyn will send shockwaves through British and international Jewry. Globally, anti-Semitism, sadly, shows no sign of abating.

Finally, I’ve lived through the agony of every spectacular South African exit from the Cricket World Cup since our readmission in 1992. I dare not dream for next year. I do, however, confidently predict a Springbok win in the Rugby World Cup in Japan in November. We triumph at 12-year intervals: 1995 and 2007, so we’re due. Shana Tova!

  • Steven Gruzd is an analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

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