IT’S a regular feature of a South African February: SONA, the State of the Nation address. This year’s Covid-19-flavoured edition was an improvement in some ways:  no corpulent people dressed in red boiler suits disrupting proceedings, no absurd fashion parade, and no praise singer. Instead, we had some poetry and appropriately contemplative lighting of candles. On the downside the government had to pay Eskom millions to keep the lights on and Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his now customary wish list based on pure fantasy.

But there was something else missing, just as there has been since SONA began – a nation. This is hardly surprising. South Africa came into being in 1910 around an explicit arrangement to deny political rights on racial grounds. From 1948 until the late 1980s the National Party tried to fragment the nation geographically and persuade millions of people that they did not belong to South Africa. At the eleventh hour negotiations took the country to democracy in a unitary state; and, bingo, in the 1990s we had a rainbow nation.

While this was primarily a clever piece of public relations, it was not entirely unreasonable: genetic and historical evidence shows that well over 90% of South Africans have the same African roots. Many people hoped that the end of apartheid would usher in a society that empowered individuals in a spirit of non-racialism. But the rainbow narrative was brief and illusory. Bizarrely, the post-liberation government has continued to categorise people (illegitimately as there is no longer legislation that allows for this and people can define themselves as they wish) supposedly in the name of redress. There is no time limit for this, so it has become an endless exercise in ethno-nationalism.

Putting matters of supposed race aside, it has been blindingly obvious for many years that the ANC considers itself to be South Africa. Indeed, the country is a master class in Leninism: the State is the party and the party is the State at all three tiers of government and often elsewhere. This became all the more possible under an electoral system of undiluted proportional representation. Parliament has largely been a farce populated by highly paid nonentities representing no one and doing exactly what they are told by party bosses. It should have been replaced by a constituency-based system, but the recommendations of the Slabbert commission were ignored and have only recently been enabled by the Constitutional Court. So for a quarter of a century between elections there has been zero accountability. The country is run from ANC party headquarters at Luthuli House in true Leninist style. State capture began long before Jacob Zuma became president.

The remaining shards of the rainbow were swept away during the administration of Thabo Mbeki. Neo-apartheid policy disguised as black economic empowerment allowed a cult of demographics to take hold, leading Mzwanele Manyi to declare that there were ‘too many coloureds at the Cape’, a disgraceful Verwoerdian sentiment that nevertheless had many backers. Under the Zuma administration the State was hollowed out by a gangster faction of the ANC. Key agencies of the democratic order (most notably the revenue and prosecution services) were disabled to permit a patronage system to plunder the nation, particularly its state-owned enterprises. This appears so embedded and uncontrollable that some forecasts make South Africa officially a failed state by 2030. (One of my measures of a failed state is the absence of a postal system; and that to all intents and purposes is a fact already.)

One reason to suggest that this might be a correct prediction is the ANC’s inability to govern itself, let alone the country. Under the Ramaphosa administration there have been some attempts to push back against state capture and corruption. The ANC itself has adopted policy requiring all those charged with criminal offences to step down until judicial processes are complete. This is being totallly ignored, not least by the party’s secretary-general and its most powerful official who is a crook of note. Meanwhile, the ousted Zupta faction, a coalition of the corrupt and venal, is demonstrating its contempt for democracy and the rule of law by showing the finger to the Constitution, which some openly refer to as a Western imposition. This group has nothing to offer beyond sloganeering about EWC, WMC and RET – expropriation without compensation, white monopoly capitalism and radical economic transformation. But slogans are extremely powerful in modern politics, and not just in South Africa.

Ramaphosa has a weak power base within the ANC and is almost certainly a one-term president; possibly less if he loses the presidency of the party and is recalled. Yet consistently he puts the precarious unity of the ANC far ahead of that of the interests of the nation. If those were paramount, nearly all the Cabinet would be sacked. It would split the ANC, but alliance possibilities are numerous and national identity could be built on the rule of law and civic morality. It is those qualities that allow nations to develop around social cohesion, prosperity and service. Slogans and symbols are ultimately mere ephemera.

Instead, the country is increasingly run by gangsters. The grand corruption around state tenders and rental agreements is well documented not least by the admirable Raymond Zondo and his commission. That illegality is all a matter of unofficial meetings, phone calls and disguised financial transactions. But on the ground the sheer brutality of South African life is both more obvious and under-reported. Men with guns ultimately run construction sites, housing projects, trucking, the taxi industry, and even funerals. And underlying that situation are social problems manifest in drugs, crime and violence against women and children.

It is not unreasonable to ascribe this in part to history; but that provides a context, not an excuse and in no way absolves present-day leaders. Just as the authoritarians of 1910 denied the prospect of full citizenship to a majority of the population, so South Africa today is run by enforcers of various types and inclination. This is evident even in workplaces. Real individual freedom is more and more circumscribed.

So much for Freedom Day, April 1994. Even its fragile symbols are disappearing; others in tatters. And yet we still have the ANC, a country unto itself. The nation is another matter.