At the opening of the Rivonia Trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela said, “The African National Congress was formed in 1912 to defend the rights of the African people which had been seriously curtailed by the South Africa Act, and which were then being threatened by the Native Land Act.” To date however, not much has improved economically in the lives of those opressed by the apartheid.

The conditions that prevailed during that era of political repression necessitated the black people to unite in a struggle against the Nationalist regime and defend their rights and dignity as a people. The nature of the struggle for liberation mutated with changing circumstances in the country and worsening conditions under which black people were forced to live. The ANC built itself a particular character that reconciled with the nature of the struggle, appealed to the immediate needs of the people and rallied them in their multitudes behind a common cause. The Freedom Charter of 1955 defined the aim of the struggle as both political and economic liberation. However, the negotiated settlement in the 1990s only delivered political liberation to the majority of South Africans while economic liberation continued to be a wet dream.

"The African National Congress was formed in 1912 to defend the rights of the African people which had been seriously curtailed by the South Africa Act, and were then being threatened by the Native Land Act."

The immediate challenge of the ANC post-apartheid was the arduous task of fulfilling the hopes and aspirations of the majority of poor South Africans who were savouring the newly harvested fruits of freedom. The fulfilment of the hope aroused during the liberation struggle turned into a realisable prospect given the electoral promises of 1994, which illuminated a brighter and more prosperous future on the horizon. The promulgation of legislation to ensure the distribution of economic wealth to the black people and their empowerment initially gave the impression of an effective solution to the lingering question of economic freedom.

Like everything else a good measure of policy rests in its execution. Economic empowerment has merely served to benefit politically-connected individuals in spite of the lasting promises to broaden the scope and benefit the majority. The level of corruption has not assisted in ensuring a fundamental shift in socio-economic conditions of the majority of the people; but instead it has redirected limited state resources towards benefitting a group of few individuals with close proximity to power. The noble ideal of building “a better life for all” has been overtaken by the political imperatives that demand the sustenance of a patronage network and reward of historical loyalties.

In 2006, an ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama aptly said, “We didn’t struggle to be poor.” His infamous statement can be correctly juxtaposed with the cause for economic liberation of the majority; and equally placed alongside the phenomenon of the culture of corruption that came to be deeply entrenched. The dramatic rise in the number of service delivery protests since 2009, which are often characterised by incidents of violence, highlights the inverse consequence of corruption on effective governance and service delivery.

A discussion document titled: “Organisational Renewal: Building the ANC as a movement for transformation and a strategic centre of power,” was tabled at the 52nd ANC National Conference in Polokwane. Contained in the discussion document was a bold declaration that, “the ANC’s primary mission is to serve the people!” The resolve to fulfil this mission is secondary to the priority of accumulating wealth by those in power, only for themselves and those close to them.

Chief among the achievements that Zuma highlighted in his state of the nation address was the number of people relying on distribution of social grants for their livelihood. He said, “Since we are building a developmental and not a welfare state, the social grants will be linked to economic activity and community development, to enable short-term beneficiaries to become self-supporting in the long run.”

Any government operating with finite resources would aim to establish favourable conditions to promote self-reliance of its populace. Often governments encourage dependence of the poor in order to easily manipulate them during elections period. A government that does not exist for the general welfare of society ordinarily plants seeds of unrest and would consequently be overthrown whether democratically or through a violent revolution. In promoting the general welfare of society it should not therefore mean the creation of a welfare state where the majority of people are dependent on the state for their basic needs.

In South Africa, the number of people who depend on social grants has increased from about 12 million in 2008 to 15 million in 2012. This dramatic rise in social grants, interestingly, coincides with the disturbing deterioration in the quality of education, the slowdown in the economy and rising unemployment. The idea that social grants contribute towards building a development state and promote self-reliance is bordering on the absurd. After 18 years of democracy the country should be enjoying a significant shift in the quality of education, supported by increasing opportunities to be active participants in the mainstream economy; and overall improvement in the quality of life and human development. The persisting scourge of high levels of poverty is a direct indictment on the ANC and its inability to purge corrupt leaders who betray the commitment to fulfil their stated mission to serve the people.

Zuma, after his victory in Polokwane told the delegates: “Let me emphasise that the leadership collective will serve the entire membership of the ANC.” This was confirmed at an ANC gala evening held on the 11th January 2013, where he stated that “…If you go beyond that and become a member (of the ANC)… if you are a businessman, your business will multiply,” He went so far as to say, “I have always said that a wise businessman will support the ANC because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business.” The leadership collective of the ANC does not exist in isolation to the leadership collective in the ANC-led government. These pronouncements in themself are problematic in that they create an expectation of prioritisation of those with political loyalties to the ANC in the battle for scarce resources. This becomes the very basis for the establishment of a patronage network that reinforces corrupt behaviour, incompetence and consequently non-delivery of services to the people who are outside the structures of the ANC.

Corruption flourishes out of the need to maintain these networks of political patronage and retain power. Leaders are not driven by the need to do what is right but by the need to preserve power and control resources for personal gain. The ANC continues to exploit the liberation struggle sentimentalism that lives among the majority of poor people. Social grants have become an effective measure by government to pacify the emotions of the frustrated populace while no concerted effort is made to eradicate those conditions necessitating their distribution.

It is the curse of liberation movements who subsequent to their ascendency to power become overwhelmed with the immediate need to reward political loyalties and to establish networks of mutual dependency and reciprocity. Zuma created about seven new ministries in 2009 after becoming state president, which he defended as establishing a government that is more responsive to the needs of the people. But the expansion of government has never corresponded with improvement in the levels of service delivery. In fact, the number of service delivery protests increased during the period when government was meant to be agile. It was preposterous to imagine an obese government responding with improved agility to the needs of the people. The bloated administration was purely aligned with the necessity to expand the patronage network.

The phenomenon of mutually beneficial symbioses has now become deeply entrenched in all spheres of government as former liberators became accustomed to the splendour and lavishness associated with higher office. A better life for all remains a mirage in a distant horizon. Clamours for the reform of the electoral system to empower the people to directly elect their representatives have fallen on deaf ears. The ANC now serves its own narrow interests not the people it committed itself to serving.