THE seventh week of the year proved momentous for southern Africa. First, thief-in-chief President Jacob Zuma was forced to resign by his own party, but not before prevarication had allowed a number of his criminal associates and relatives to skip the country. As deputy president, Zuma had been sacked by President Thabo Mbeki. Zuma later engineered Mbeki’s removal, but has now been recalled by his own deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa. There is a neat symmetry about these events. Second, there was further irony with the death of former Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai. He was Ramaphosa’s equivalent north of the Limpopo, the leader forged in the democratic trade union movement rather than the murky politics of armed struggle. And Ramaphosa’s long overdue appointment as national president is in a sense a vindication of Tsvangirai’s political odyssey. Third, there was the death of Sampie Terblanche, the Afrikaner intellectual whose life reminds us that liberation was achieved by many people of many persuasions who had in common a shared vision of a decent and just South Africa.

Why then has the nation endured a nine-year meltdown under Zuma? Ramaphosa was predictably elected unopposed by a House of Assembly that echoed a national sigh of relief that the Zupta era (or error as the cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro so wittily put it) is over. There is an air of very cautious optimism abroad, but it remains to be seen how effective Ramaphosa will be in applying the scalpel to the cancer of corruption and criminal incompetence within the ANC’s racketeering, rent-seeking networks. While it is proper to look forward with measured hope to improvement in governance and civic morality, a backward glance is equally appropriate. How on earth did a country with all the resources of South Africa, not the least its much-regarded constitution, end up with a gangster in charge? And how did it allow him to remain in office for nearly nine years even though the Constitutional Court found him to have been in breach of his oath of office? Current optimism will be wasted if questions about the recent past are not addressed. They lie squarely within the ambit of ANC political culture, the nature of national politics and the behaviour of the electorate.

Nelson Mandela was a towering statesman, but in many ways a flawed politician. With another moral colossus, Desmond Tutu, he encouraged the idea of the Rainbow Nation, always a dangerous delusion and now known to be a total myth. It may have existed for a fleeting hour or three at the Rugby World Cup victory in 1995. But its illusory nature allowed a raft of undesirable developments to take place in the late 1990s under Mandela’s watch. The democratic traditions of the United Democratic Front were not just sidelined; they were wiped out and with them the political careers of two trade unionists, Ramaphosa (for many years) and Jay Naidoo, among others. In flooded the exiles with their paranoia, corruption and Stasi security mentalities. It was a stunning betrayal of the inziles of many ideologies who had brought apartheid to its knees. And the most memorable event of that era was the arms deal, from whose sordid roots many of South Africa’s governance ills can be traced. This was not aberrant or circumstantial: an embedded culture of corruption can be traced back to the MK training camps of Tanzania in the early 1960s. Corruption is inherent to the ANC.

Thabo Mbeki was another compromised president, possibly the recipient of arms deal largesse himself: an AIDS denialist with some very dubious connections in the world of pseudo-science; and an Africanist mentality that encouraged racial nationalism at home and turned a blind eye to the human rights atrocities of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. But Mbeki did have the courage to sack a deputy president clearly implicated in racketeering and graft who was subsequently able to escape conviction on a rape charge. This attracted a motley collection of political opportunists across the political spectrum who saw advantage in a Zuma presidency even though it was obvious it would be disastrous for the nation. Among them were the communist Blade Nzimande, the Afro-fascist Julius Malema and the socialist Zwelinzima Vavi. All of them thought they could use and control an alleged criminal; and all of them eventually became his most bitter of critics. Political cynicism or misjudgement? None has offered a mea culpa. It was all a little reminiscent of Germany as Hitler rose to power exploiting legitimate and democratic structures.

The deficiencies of Zuma were soon apparent. He consistently lost court cases brought against him in connection with corruption and stalled for time with endless appeals. Most significantly he was sanctioned by the Constitutional Court and the Public Protector and openly mocked and ignored the rule of law. As he ducked and dived he constructed a parallel state in which the plundering and untoward influence of his criminal cronies was protected by political appointees in key areas of the State. All the state-owned enterprises (electricity, transport, airline), police, secret service, national prosecuting authority, revenue service, national broadcaster and in the end even the office of the public protector were captured.

The judiciary remained untainted and beyond reproach, while the armed forces have, as South African tradition dictates, stayed out of politics. This process of state capture was minutely and consistently documented by a press that remained functional, if not always as perceptive as might be. Yet the ANC stayed doggedly loyal (or subservient) to Zuma as he populated his Cabinet with increasing numbers of the incompetent and corrupt, some of them to all appearance certifiable. The party and MPs remained unmoved even after the intervention of the highest court in the land and the Protector. Their failure to remove Zuma long ago constituted treason as it endangered the nation and put all its people in peril. This is the same ANC that Ramaphosa now heads. It is hard to believe the movement entirely lacks perceptive and intelligent politicians, but the oppressive influence of Number One, the African Big Man, seems to have paralysed all of them in parliament.

The ANC’s culture bears little resemblance that of a political party operating in a modern democracy. But the it is not a party, nor is South Africa a democracy. One of the problems is proportional representation, the list system and absence of constituency representation. The voters turn out every five years to endorse a party that then behaves as it pleases. Voting tends to be based on fixed loyalties; so much so that a local councillor can be re-elected one week only for service delivery protests to resume the next.

It is often claimed that South Africa has a strong civil society. It is true that it has the strongest in Africa and that individual organisations have a proud record of successfully addressing specific issues: Freedom under Law, the Helen Suzman Foundation and the Treatment Action Campaign spring readily to mind. Yet even when the trade union federations are involved there has been no mass action able to challenge the ANC.

Ramaphosa has started well. An early morning walker he has invited citizens to join him. By contrast, Zuma, the supposed people’s president, has for years appeared in public (invariably late) surrounded only by many grim-faced bodyguards. After a Cabinet clear-out there needs to be punitive action against the corrupt who have appropriated national resources. This involves not only the Guptas and their associates, but Zuma himself and assorted relatives, and high-ranking members of the ANC. Catharsis for the trauma of the Zupta error should involve justice and the triumph of the rule of law. This requires many days in court and the eventual clanging shut of jail doors.

There is only one way out of the current pervasive culture of corruption and that is to punish the guilty and sound a warning to those who might be tempted to repeat the behaviour of recent years. But South Africa must move further. Its current version of democracy involves a formalistic and symbolic piece of theatre whose actors are political parties, parliament, voters and the Constitution. The system failed to remove a dangerously incompetent president allowing the country to drift towards collapse. The actors in South Africa’s political drama are insufficiently connected: the Constitution is undervalued; the electorate has minimal influence over its representatives in the absence of constituencies; and civic morality and accountability are subordinated to personal allegiance and loyalty. Into the yawning gaps step the criminal and corrupt who have turned the country into a gangster state.

It will take more than a change of political personalities to rescue South Africa. It requires a revolutionary change in political culture and collective attitude.