BEFORE, during and since the ANC’s elective conference in December last year much has been made of personalities. This is not without reason. President Jacob Zuma is widely regarded as ‘thief-in-chief’ and Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president has led to widespread murmurings of optimism and a significant strengthening of the Rand. Should Zuma be removed from national office (only the Assembly can do that constitutionally, although the ANC could persuade him to depart) as is increasingly possible there would be a major surge of positive sentiment. How long this would last, and whether violence could be avoided especially in KwaZulu-Natal, is a matter for conjecture. However, at this point there are good reasons for a large dose of pessimism. This rests on three factors: the state of the ANC, of the country’s institutions, and of the nation in general.

In spite of the rhetoric, the ANC long since ceased to be a liberation movement. But it has never been a modern political party and seems doggedly determined never to become one. As an organisation it is hard to define. But one plausible description is a rent-seeking, racketeering quasi-business. Many of its more recent recruits have joined up for personal gain to access networks of patronage and corruption that unlock doors of power and wealth. The scale of corruption and mis-spending exposed endlessly by the auditor-general’s office is truly staggering. Most disturbing of all has been disregard for the rule of law and mocking contempt for the Constitution from the ANC itself and from the highest office in the land.

The increasing inability of the ANC to run its own structures at branch, regional and provincial level is not a measure of incompetence, but of the enormously high stakes involved. Inter-factional conflict is byzantine and never ending. Insults, brawls and resort to the courts are now routine. So, too, is assassination. When the pathway to status and riches is determined by position on a party list, the temptation to jump the queue by removing a higher-placed competitor is strong. The rampant violence associated with the taxi industry and drugs has moved on to politics. South Africa, courtesy of the ANC, is becoming a mafia-type state with people dying in carefully planned hits, usually coming or going from work or home.

The ANC is fond of long consultations and policy pronouncements, but all fade into irrelevance and insignificance alongside its factionalism. There are many rackets but the best known is State capture by the Zupta faction, the unholy alliance between the large and avaricious Zuma and Gupta families. Looting, misgovernance and criminality are widespread, but the greater damage concerns institutions that have the power to curb them. Zuma’s behaviour, acquisitiveness and dodgy friends have raised a strong possibility of criminal charges and jail time.

In desperate measures to avoid this, the Zupta faction has undermined and sometimes virtually destroyed well-functioning state departments. SARS, the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority, SAPS crime intelligence and the secret service have all been compromised by the appointment of cronies and the departure of the principled and competent. State-owned enterprises like Eskom, Transnet and SAA, targets of preferment and looting, are in a similar parlous condition. And most dramatic of all, able and independent-minded Cabinet ministers have been axed; with strong evidence that their successors have been selected by Gupta headquarters at Saxonwold. Infighting and factionalism, looting and rent-seeking have resulted in a country that in some ways looks more like a medieval than a modern state.

Financial institutions have taken due note. One by one the ratings agencies have conferred junk status and the cost of servicing debt has escalated. Increasingly, South Africa is seen as an unattractive destination for investors from traditional destinations and there is little sign that new-found friends in the BRICS partnership can or will bridge the gap. For a country notoriously unable to generate and deploy internal capital this is a serious situation compounded by mounting evidence of the prevalence of corruption in the private sector. This should come as no surprise. Nearly twenty years ago Brett Kebble managed to steal R26 billion (at today’s valuation) before supposedly arranging his own murder in 2005. Complicit in the theft were a number of businesspeople and institutions such as Investec and KPMG who have escaped any consequence.

A visit to any suburban South African mall will confirm the continued growth in the numbers and wealth of middle class black South Africans. The number of African mortgage holders has long since overtaken that of whites. Millions of peri-urban and rural people, almost all African, have been provided with electricity, mains water and sewerage connections since 1994. While deprivation is everywhere, visual evidence suggests South Africa may not be the location of the world’s most severe case of socio-economic inequality. At worst the composition of the privileged quarter of society is truly multiracial. The post-apartheid dividend has been both considerable and widespread.

The days of state creation of jobs are gone. The formal sector of the economy continues to shed workers in favour of machines that obligingly obey orders. The prospects of continued middle class prosperity, and alleviating the condition of the poor and improving the chances of their offspring, are dependent upon increasing individual self-reliance. And that essentially depends on education and health. Neither of these sectors is performing anywhere near adequately. In spite of the hoopla surrounding the annual celebration of matric results, the school system continues to produce the sub-literate and barely numerate; discounting the many pupils who do not even complete their education. A pointless wrangle continues around free higher education while the ability of universities to reproduce themselves is seriously in question. (Sober commentators question whether universities still exist in South Africa.) In any case South Africa does not need more sociologists, accountants or lawyers – especially lawyers. It needs creative citizens in the broadest sense of the term.   Parts of the primary health care system work, and the fight against HIV/AIDS is reaping rewards, but many larger hospitals are dysfunctional and some of the consequences are scandalous.

It is very easy to deconstruct an institution and it can be done remarkably quickly. Most organisations are relatively fragile and ultimately depend upon no more than the long-term willpower and willingness of their employees. Destruction is surprisingly easy as this author can attest. Reconstructing is extraordinarily difficult and requires steely determination. The auditor-general, various ministers of finance, the judiciary and even upright members of the ANC have thundered on for years about the need to ‘root out corruption’. There is absolutely no evidence that a culture of graft and criminality is not more engrained in the ANC than ever. The best places to look are small municipalities. And when someone does acquire the courage to tackle corruption, violence erupts. As a result the number of convictions for corruption is minuscule. In one sense this is why the prosecution of Zuma is so crucial.

Civic culture in South Africa is fundamentally compromised, maybe fatally and beyond redemption. Some take heart from the fact that half of the top leadership and the national executive committee of the ANC can now be regarded as relatively clean and principled. This says little for the other half. And exactly how is deeply entrenched maladministration to be defeated when many benefit from it at the expense of the majority?