Even though everything on the surface glistens like refined platinum under the African sun. Even though every world leader, from Obama in the US, to Li Keqiang in China, considers South Africa to be its darling friend. Even though there are visible improvements to the lives of ordinary South Africans, this country might be poised on a knife-edge. As it approaches its 20th anniversary of democratic rule, a point at which Zimbabwe unravelled (an apparently excellent example of black rule after colonial oppression) South Africa needs to take stock and ask what direction it needs to follow come 2014, the year of its fifth election cycle. Up to this point, South Africa has had a president suited for the challenges of each election cycle, even though there were downsides to each rule. Mandela reconciled the country politically and left it dangerously divided economically. Mbeki enhanced our reputation on the world stage and gave us some of the best policies any country could wish for, but he botched up education and health.

We are now in an era that is unique partly because a man who went through a damning rape case that revealed some dubious character traits survived to become president. In any mature democracy, and purely on the basis of admissions of having unprotected sex in an HIV/AIDS infested country and taking a shower to minimise chances of contracting the disease, Zuma would not have become president.

In France, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of rape at a time when he stood a chance of winning if he ran for president of France against the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. The charges were dropped before he even contested them in court. Yet still he lost his entire political cache and disappeared. Not so in South Africa, where individuals do not have to stand or fall on their personal reputations to succeed in politics. Given that we are forced to vote for their parties and not their persons, a political party can be used to cushion, or totally arrest, even a necessary fall. To be clear, Zuma has had some remarkable successes as president. He has had a real impact in the fight against HIV/Aids. Health is now a serious government priority. He has somewhat managed to make Mbeki’s “silenced masses” feel strong enough to speak up and say what they think. 

Even though everything on the surface glistens like refined platinum under the African sun. Even though every world leader, from Obama in the US, to Li Keqiang in China, considers

In a sense, the Marikana miners’ strike against working conditions, as brutal as the response to it was, is proof of citizens’ new impetus to stand up against social injustice under Zuma’s rule. Even though moneyed South Africa might view the now infamous Marikana massacre as a loss of control, poverty-stricken South African might see empowerment in this same scenario.

 On the downside, South Africa has never had as many scandalous cases of corruption under any other president. Mandela’s retirement home took R28.2 million of taxpayer’s money to beef up security. Mbeki’s retirement home cost a measly R3.5 million in comparison. Zuma’s home, even as he campaigns for a second term, is reported to be costing taxpayers a staggering R270 million! To add to this, under his leadership, it is difficult to decide whether government decisions on key issues, such as the management of the country’s natural resources, have integrity. His immediate relatives, his deputy in the ANC, his deputy’s in-laws, the Secretary General’s wife and the National Secretary of his party are all in mining. Can we trust the government’s views on land reform when the Secretary General of the ANC is rumoured to be gathering farms through the State?

 Of all of the presidents South Africa has had so far, Mandela is the only one to have served for one term before retiring gracefully. Mbeki was humiliated while trying for an effective third term. Zuma apparently agreed to serve for one term and then, once settled into the presidency, decided to go for a second, thus upsetting some, who, on voicing disapproval, were hounded out of the ANC.  Given the fact that nothing ruins a country faster than institutionalised corruption, the ANC needs an external kick in the proverbial behind.

If it does not get serious opposition based on real alternative programmes that are designed to better the country, the ANC is going to implode and take the country down with it, at the expense of every South African. The idea that the ANC, through its structures, is its own perfect opposition, when the list of who should be voted into its National Executive Committee is decided upfront, for example, is a fallacy. A real political opposition party with less racist bias than the Democratic Alliance and more noble intentions than the Congress of the People is now urgently needed to help stop the rot before it is too late.

Africa cannot afford to have another Zimbabwe. A positively functional South Africa is needed for continental democracy, peace and stability through an effective African Union, economic advancement for all through unified African economic blocks that speak in one voice and respect on the international stage through a useful presence in the United Nations.

It is encouraging to see two new players entering South Africa’s political arena and making the right noises about fixing what is wrong. 

Agang was first to announce its intention to contest the 2014 elections. Leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele was a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement. She was very close to Steve Biko, the movement’s greatest ambassador, a man who was viciously murdered by apartheid police. It is difficult to imagine Dr Ramphele defiling Biko’s legacy by starting a political party without integrity. Agang seems to have strong financial support.

It appears too that Julius Malema and his followers are gearing up to run under the name ‘Economic Freedom Fighters’ in 2014. Given their party name, they will most likely be pushing the same issues that Malema was passionate about before he was relieved of his duties as president of the ANC Youth League and expelled from the ANC. They will want to accelerate land reform. They will want to push for the nationalisation of mines. They will look at the economy with a strong view towards magnifying benefits for indigenous South Africans. In essence, they will claim to be passionate about radicalising and speeding up the ANC’s current policies.

But electioneering is not cheap. Malema has completely alienated moneyed South Africa. Where will his party get financial support? Kenny Kunene is an option.

This is the true test of who was right in the power struggle between Malema and the ANC. Is Malema corrupt or did the ANC get rid of him for reasons not apparent to those outside of its ranks? If Malema is corrupt, he will need money to run. However, if he is committed to the cause whose clarion call is “Economic freedom in our lifetime”, he will need very little. Lumumba united the vast population in Zaire by literally crisscrossing the country and visiting every bar, in every little town, to share his ideas in person. It will take that level of commitment to prove that Malema truly believes in his cause and that he is worthy of a following.

In the end, it’s not about political parties. It is about creating a prosperous South Africa in which not a single citizen wants to see a fellow South African in misery, and is willing to actively help those in need. It is about a South Africa with political leaders at the helm who are truly committed to elevating every poor citizen up to the middle class in a generation.

The ANC can only stop institutionalising corruption and start speeding up economic change when it encounters an opposition party that is more serious and committed to getting rid of poverty. The sooner this happens, the better for all of us. The most opportune time for this opposition to emerge is in 2014. Win or lose, this opposition’s presence will sharpen our political tools, remind us why we fought apartheid and help us avoid Zimbabwe’s fate.