SOUTH Africa’s political pundits are forecasting major problems ahead for the African National Congress. Having run the country’s state institutions and its economy into the ground, it is currently mismanaging the Covid-19 epidemic. A string of unpopular and arguable restrictions, heavy-handed and sometimes lethal policing, and corruption around procurement of personal protective equipment have resulted not just in growing unpopularity measured by opinion polls, but open contempt and growing defiance. For the last, simply observe any commuter taxi. Violence is sporadic at present, but simmers not far below the surface. Discontent is so great that some commentators are predicting that the ANC could lose power in both local and national elections. The timing of the former (due in 2021) is now suddenly and suspiciously up for debate.

The loss of an ANC majority at national level is still unlikely because its disaffected voters tend to abstain or not to register at all rather than shift allegiance, so entrenched is the cult of the liberation movement. A quarter of a century on, an understanding of democracy is still remarkably shallow. But an ANC share of less than 50% is no longer entirely unthinkable. The question of whether the ANC would actually cede power to another political party (possibly not, given its clout within the police, military and public [sic] service and the coercive potential of its youth and veterans’ leagues) is beside the point because there is no real challenger. The most likely outcome would be a coalition.

The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is on the back foot in a crisis of identity and focusing on its liberal roots. In many ways this is laudable but will increasingly marginalise it, even though it can point to the country’s few successful examples of governance – in the Western Cape. Although they have been suspiciously quiet during the epidemic, only the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFFs) have the potential apart from the DA to aspire to a role in national government. All the minor parties are embedded in distinct communities or they revolve around celebrity politicians and have no specific policies. Given that the EFFs are an offshoot of the ANC and a neo-fascist outfit with a great deal in common with the most obviously corrupt and venal, Zupta faction of the governing party, this particular future looks bleak indeed. It might of course lead to a further fracturing of the ANC and a counter-coalition of progressive, clean government parties. But is South African politics that sophisticated?

Helen Zille of the DA is perpetually in the political dog box for her misjudged Twitter outbursts that inevitably reduce complex arguments to a few easily disparaged phrases. But on a good day she remains a formidable analyst. Her latest offering points out that criminality and corruption have been legalised by BEE (black economic empowerment) provisos that have made ethnicity the primary criterion for government transactions. She makes the point, obvious to all but the most dim-witted, that decisions which subordinate quality in whatever form and reject meritocracy, economy and efficiency are set up for mediocrity at best and destined for dire consequences. Her argument is that current legislation ultimately endorses criminality. In the past, laws encouraged racism, so South Africa has not moved on very far. Any system that makes serious choices on the basis of subjective judgement rather than objective fact is asking for trouble and will readily find it.

Meritocracy is hard work, though – for everyone. Far easier to identify a loyal cadre and then exploit the outcome. There are many stories about one person, one wheelbarrow and a spade constituting a construction company. Just as alarming is the reported opinion of school leavers that qualifications do not matter in the hunt for tenders. A disgraced Durban mayor who plundered public funds was feeding her supporters. And here is the point: the system gives hope, if only minute, to the hopeless. Counter-intuitive though the thought may be, corruption can provide hope. In a meritocracy there is none without ability and aptitude, qualifications and experience. And there’s another important factor. In spite of an appearance of modernity, South Africa remains a very traditional society ruled by patriarchy and paternalism (and a dose of their female equivalent). Much of it is essentially feudal and by definition defies auditing protocols. There is an expectation that big shots will milk the system. So you vote for them in hope and if sufficient rewards are not forthcoming you burn down a building or two.

Indeed the tale of the disgraced mayor, Zandile Gumede, is salutary. She faces charges of corruption over a solid waste tender and it is alleged that she siphoned off money to fund her many supporters. Suddenly she has been parachuted into the provincial legislature ahead of other candidates; and even, after her acknowledged abuse of mayoral office, appointed to the oversight committee for local government. There have been expressions of disgust all round, including from within the ANC, at this condonation of corruption. Gumede is clearly unfit to hold public office. But the outrage is somewhat forced. This is the way patronage politics works; and has worked in South Africa for years. Gumede is the equivalent of the township warlord(lady) at the end of apartheid with a following too large to ignore. Politicians of her ilk, most ANC leaders according to none other than its secretary-general Ace Magashule, plunder the public purse to maintain their power. It’s an established part of the system; the norm, not an aberration. Patronage and corruption are deeply etched in the ANC’s political DNA.

During the apartheid years some people tried to live as far as they could in a non-racial bubble, which was in a way a parallel life. The same is now true of a society that is nominally democratic. Constitutionalists promote the rule of law; while a galaxy of politicians, with their hangers-on in business and government, make themselves rich from public funds and thumb their noses at good governance and the rule of law. The parallel world concept lives on.

The vast majority of people are simply too busy existing day-by-day; and even hand-to-mouth. It is they ultimately who will frame the future and in the end it may have little to do with elections. The ANC’s Leninist approach to government at all levels means that almost every public institution, including those designed to protect the democratic process, is in a state of collapse. Exactly how this deep culture of state capture is to be rectified is hard to envisage. World history, some of it very recent, holds up some disturbing possibilities.

• Published in the Witness 2 September 2020