In December, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress celebrated its status as the oldest political party on the African continent at the place of its birth – Bloemfontein. The centenary elective conference should have been a moment of triumph and in many ways it was. The ANC had not only survived where many other parties had fallen by the wayside, it had emerged victorious from its fight with apartheid and had succeeding in ruling the country in peace and relative prosperity for almost two decades.

President Jacob Zuma, avuncular, charming and immensely shrewd, left the conference with a strengthened hand. Despite predictions that he would face a challenge to his leadership, none emerged. As ever, Jacob Zuma’s enemies had underestimated his ability to manoeuvre inside the party. Barring unforeseen events, the president will lead his movement and his country into the next general election in 2014.

Indeed his hand was strengthened by the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as his deputy, a miners’ leader who became, after the unbanning of Nelson Mandela in 1990, the ANC’s key negotiator with the old apartheid government. It was Ramaphosa who hammered out the deal that led to South Africa’s new constitution, which has served the nation well. He could have been Mandela’s successor, but was defeated by Thabo Mbeki who used his links with the former ANC exiles to win the position. Ramaphosa left politics and went into business, to become among the richest men in South Africa.

As one of the country’s leading commentators, Stephen Friedman has argued that the ANC’s December conference was a Zuma-Ramaphosa victory at the expense of a group within the party describing themselves as ‘Forces for Change’. This shadowy grouping is determined to exploit their relationship with the ANC and the assets of the state to gain a greater stake in business and the professions. They have used their positions within the party to amass vast fortunes through the government’s Black Economic Empowerment programmes. These policies have resulted in the transfer of assets to a new black elite. At the same time the programmes have done nothing to drive economic growth or to solve the country’s chronic unemployment problems.

The defeat of this group was, however, almost the only good news to come out of the ANC conference. The run-up to the event had seen a vicious struggle for position. There were some forty deaths within the ANC as factions fought to gain control of party branches. The main trade union movement, Cosatu, is in a formal alliance with the ANC. Its leader, Zwelinzima Vavi, condemned the attacks, declaring that killing to win positions in the ANC had ‘taken over’ the party. He rejected suggestions that the assassination was the work of the ANC’s old rivals, the mainly Zulu, Inkatha Freedom Party. ‘Political killings are so commonplace in KwaZulu-Natal that we can no longer blame them on the IFP warlords because it’s an inside job,’ Vavi said.

Others used the manipulation of party membership to bolster their positions. The respected Mail & Guardian newspaper reported the padding of ANC membership figures. ‘Ghost members’ were routinely added to make up the numbers, the paper alleged, partly explaining the Zuma victory.

The problem for the president and his party is that there is a growing perception among ordinary South Africans that both are mired in corruption. The ANC has now launched a campaign to revitalise their image prior to the 2014 elections. The difficulty is that this ‘makeover’ is constantly undermined by the President’s activities. Throughout 2012 allegations were made in parliament and the press that Jacob Zuma was feathering his own nest by getting the state to spend millions on the refurbishment of his private residences at his rural home in Nkandla. When newspapers attempted to expose this expenditure, the presidency turned to apartheid era legislation, designating the area a ‘National Key Point’ – making information about it a state secret.

Worse still are the allegations that continue to hang over Mr Zuma associated with South Africa’s notorious $4.8 billion arms deal of 1998. He is accused of having received 783 payments, totalling Rand 4,072,499.85 (or approximately £300,000) from his corrupt financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. These allegations were laid out in the indictment served on Jacob Zuma on 28 December 2007, ten days after he was elected ANC president. The state accused Mr Zuma of racketeering and corruption. The charges were dropped after the Director of Public Prosecutions decided there had been political interference in the case and that it could therefore not proceed. This is still being challenged, but by using what have been described as ‘Stalingrad tactics’ Mr Zuma’s lawyers have so far succeeded in preventing him ever facing a court. As a result, Mr Zuma walks free, while his adviser, Mr Shaik, was convicted and (briefly) jailed.

A Commission of Inquiry into the arms deal rumbles on and is taking evidence. South African inquiries, like some of those in Britain, are seldom designed to do more than kick an issue into the long grass, and few in South Africa believe it is likely to reach a conclusion that resolves the issue.

In the meanwhile, Transparency International continues to measure the decline in South Africa’s standing in its international corruption tables. In 1994 the country stood at twenty-first place, just below Japan. By 2012 it was in sixty-ninth place, just below Saudi Arabia. It is now widely acknowledged that government, particularly at the local level, is riddled with corruption. As South Africa’s Auditor General pointed out in his latest report, just 5% of all local government produced accounts that could be classed as completely acceptable.

Corruption has eroded the delivery of services to ordinary South Africans who continue to take to the streets in sometimes violent protests. At the same time corruption has eroded trust in government and the ruling party. This issue has received a great deal of attention in the local and international media, but it has also served to obscure another key issue: the country’s income inequality. The differentials of income between the racial groups, already among the highest in the world under apartheid, have only widened under the ANC. South Africa’s minorities continue, generally, to do very

nicely, thank you. Up to one million members of the white community may have left South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, but many of those that remain continue to enjoy a remarkably opulent lifestyle.

Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies have helped create a narrow elite, but have done little to change the overall balance of wealth. African incomes have changed relatively little since the end of apartheid in 1994. Asian communities have done very well, while Coloured (mixed race) people have seen little improvement in their relative position. Most wealth remains in white hands.

The white business community has taken care to keep their heads down, while building their links with the black political elite. Business South Africa, controlled by whites, merged with the Black Business Council in October 2003 to form Business Unity South Africa. Not all black businesses appreciated the change, and a section broke away from the new body in 2009. Nonetheless, the white business community had found a convenient new home for their interests. From here they could lobby the ANC government.

Some in white business went further, joining the ANC’s Progressive Business Forum. Its stated purpose is to open direct links with the ruling party. The Progressive Business Forum was established by the ANC in 2006 to create a dialogue between the business community and itself as the primary policy incubator of the country. Within a year of its formation the Forum was being portrayed in the press as a means of ‘buying face- time with Cabinet ministers and senior government officials.’ The ANC responded briskly that there was ‘nothing untoward about this.’ Today it is clear that the Progressive Business Forum is a potent means of raising money for the party. A seat at President Zuma’s table at a banquet held in Johannesburg in June 2012 was going for no less than R500,000 or close on £40,000.

Nearly two decades after the ANC came to power the black middle class is both powerful – through its influential role in the ANC – but also dependent on the party for its position. It is insufficiently well resourced to stand on its own feet and reliant on state contracts and BEE legislation for its positions. The white elite, on the other hand, is better endowed and better resourced.

Some have moved to become consultants, rather than hold formal positions in companies. Others have transferred some or all of their wealth offshore – treading the trail blazed by companies formerly listed in South Africa like Old Mutual and Anglo-American, which are now listed on the London stock exchange. At the same time white business has learnt to live with the ANC in government, working behind the scenes rather than raising their voices in public. One could perhaps conclude that for the South African elite of all colours, life is ‘business as usual.’

It is this combination of a government that has exhausted its ability to regenerate itself after two decades in power; a corrupt elite that is determined to hang onto power and a rising tide of anger among the unemployed and the destitute that is so explosive. Commentators have increasingly wondered whether the country is heading towards its own version of an ‘Arab Spring’. Such events are, invariably, almost impossible to predict, but one thing is certain: dark clouds are once more gathering over South Africa.

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.