The eighteenth century Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, aptly observed that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” His fellow countryman and poet, William Butler Yeats, in his memorable work, The Second Coming, captured a similar sentiment with the words: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The words of both Burke and Yeats would resonate with the majority of gatvol South Africans who find themselves at the mercy of questionable characters in government. We are overwhelmed by that nagging feeling of powerlessness. While we may feel betrayed by these morally destitute and unethical characters, we are perhaps betrayed to a larger extent by the nature of our electoral system which leaves us to the political mechanisations of a handful delegates that elect the ANC leadership every five years.

The Economist magazine in its recent article painted a portrait of a country on a downward slope. The former President Mbeki also admitted to not knowing where the country will be tomorrow and went further to question the capacity of his comrades to lead us to a better future. We have allowed the mess in the country to continue unabated because we still suffer from the hangover of the struggle against apartheid. The ANC, which once was a beacon of hope for the poor and the oppressed, has been hijacked by self-serving men and women, some with a disturbing propensity for criminal indiscretions. Their arrogance of power continues to grow in the knowledge that no popular political alternative exists, which would challenge and upset their unpopular reign. The public appears to have become hostages to our much lauded democratic system and historical sentiments.

We are perhaps betrayed by the nature of our electoral system, which leaves us to the political mechanisations of a handful of delegates that elect the ANC leadership every five years

As the journey along the treacherous Road to Mangaung gains momentum, we again find ourselves in the crossfire of political mudslinging between two opposing factions within the ruling ANC. The leadership conference in Mangaung is meant to elect new leaders who, with renewed vigour, will lead us to the Promised Land. The factional battle lines have been drawn. Positions have been chosen and all are unwavering. The manoeuvring in the dark alleys of our political arena is in full swing. Primary consideration for the continuation of political patronage supersedes the need to uphold those sacred principles and values of the ANC that once were engraved in the conscience of the majority of South Africans. Consideration for the general welfare of the public and the state of the economy is secondary.

The nauseating refrain among those backing Zuma’s second term as President of the ANC is “continuity and unity.” What is uncertain is, “Continuity of what exactly?” The Zuma presidency has been characterised by some spectacular blunders and a handful of moments of excellence. The funnelling of millions of state funds for the development of his personal residence has thus far become the highlight of the failure of his leadership and lack of sound judgment. Nothing that was promised by the so-called “man of the people” has materialised to any greater extent, nor has he made any obvious attempts to execute the burden of responsibility imposed on him by the people.

The Mbeki presidency was not without its own sporadic moments of embarrassment. His government in the lead up to the Polokwane Conference in 2007 came under strong criticism and vile attacks for one thing or another. Among other things, he was accused of abusing state institutions to settle political scores with his opponents. In the process Zuma, who was fired as state deputy president for his own alleged criminal indiscretions, exploited the hostile climate and presented himself as the victim of political mechanisation, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He was able to court a coalition of the disgruntled within the tripartite alliance through the sinister propagation of falsehoods about his sacking and rallied them towards victory in Polokwane.

Emerging from a bruising Polokwane leadership contest, the ANC resolved to build “unity and cohesion” under the Zuma presidency. It was a sensible resolution given the devastating factional battles that threatened to tear the ANC apart. However, it soon became clear that good intentions and actual deeds are generally not easily reconcilable. The Zuma victory was immediately followed by systematic purges of those who didn’t support his campaign for leadership. That couldn’t have created a fertile environment for the unity and cohesion that was preached. The Gospel of Jacob which centred on the importance of party unity post Polokwane was only a populistic rhetoric that had no corresponding action.

Three years later, nothing in the conduct of the ANC can be found that affirms their commitment to build the “unity and cohesion” they had resolved on. The same gang that bemoaned the lack of tolerance for criticism by the ANC leadership under Mbeki has been driving a systematic agenda to silence dissenting voices and have in the process expelled some. Luthuli House easily launch infantile attacks against those who dare question the leadership of the ANC and the direction it’s taking the country. Common sense would dictate that a leadership that’s committed to addressing the concerns of the people and endeavours to represent their voices would ordinarily subject itself to scrutiny and take appropriate measure to rectify what failed. Their commitment to be closer to the people appears to have been with the intention to rap them over the knuckles for expressing any dissatisfaction.

One would perhaps unreasonably expect that the ANC at this moment, leading to the leadership conference, would pause and do some introspection on the journey travelled thus far; to self-assess progress made in fulfilling promises made during the 2009 elections and execution of the resolutions of Polokwane. That may be happening behind closed doors but the general public is not witnessing the outcome of any honest self-evaluation or admission to some mistakes that have been committed, or owning up for glaring failures of the last three years.

In 2006, SACP Secretary General, Blade Nzimande, loudly bemoaned the failures of the Mbeki government to consistently deal decisively with corruption, factionalism and the abuse of state power. Nzimande in his discussion document that was debated at the central committee meeting of the SACP further accused Mbeki of failing to deal with a crisis of corruption, factionalism and personal enrichment.

It appears nothing has changed since 2006. The very problems highlighted at the time persist with much greater intensity in the run-up to the Mangaung Conference. The crisis of corruption, maladministration, fruitless and wasteful expenditure, has exploded in the last few years. Factionalism has intensified. Even Zuma’s once cheerleaders, like former ANCYL President Julius Malema, have become his most vocal critics. The issue of self-enrichment has exacerbated. The vast scope of the politics of patronage has become an incontestable reality since Polokwane. Political scavengers from all corners have descended upon state coffers. Some ministers benefited handsomely from multi-million contracts with government without any consequences, while others accepted luxury Mercedes Benzes from beneficiaries of multi-billion contracts with the blessing of the sitting president. Zuma himself has diverted state funds for personal indulgence in Nkandla.

The message from government paints a picture of improving general levels of service delivery and containment of corruption, but the dramatic spike in the number of violent service delivery protests since Zuma came to power tells a depressing story. Rampant corruption in government and random incidents of incompetence have come to exemplify the nature of the government presided over by our Jacob of Nkandla.

That the global financial crisis has had a negative impact on the economy is incontestable, but the lack of imagination from the ANC government to deal decisively with mounting challenges of unemployment, poverty, atrocious education and waste of state resources has aggravated the problem. While increased government spending is useful in stimulating the economy during these troubling upheavals, in the case of the Zuma government the ‘fruitless and wasteful expenditure’ has become deeply entrenched.

Public debt between 1994 and 2008 had declined from 44% to 20%; and it immediately skyrocketed to about 33% after Zuma became president. No consideration to slice excess fat has been made but instead the Presidency elected to spend R18 million on food and entertainment. European governments embarked on a programme to trim wasteful expenditure, through unpopular austerity measures, in order to help stimulate growth and reduce public debt. The Zuma government has done the opposite.

These blatant social and economic issues, as well as maladministration and corruption would under normal circumstances be key drivers in informing the decision to nominate capable and competent individuals for the leadership of the ANC in Mangaung. However, in South Africa we are dealing with politics of patronage which derail our progress as a nation.

The Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, has been suggested by anti-Zuma supporters as the possible candidate to contest for leadership of the party. His nomination doesn’t come with motivation of what he would bring that is different from the incumbent. The campaign for his election appears to be primarily spurred by the need to wrest control of the patronage machinery rather than the pursuit of clean governance. Motlanthe, himself, appears reluctant to openly declare himself available to contest the leadership of the party. It’s also unknown whether Motlanthe would bring anything new to the ANC. What’s more disturbing is that no one seems to know what he stands for. There is a tendency to hide behind ANC processes and structures, and not openly declare one’s own ambition, political philosophy and vision for the country; and Motlanthe has been distressingly skilled in doing so.

The advocates of ‘continuity and unity’ are said to have proposed that Motlanthe retain his current position as deputy, with the aim of electing him as state president in 2014 while Zuma remains the president of the ANC. We may assume that Motlanthe possesses respectable virtues in comparison to his contender; but he may equally be condemned guilty by association. He is after-all part of the growing problem by virtue of his position in government. To agree to such backroom deal-making, Motlanthe would be reneging on the Polokwane consensus to oppose efforts to establish the so-called “two centres of power.” The Polokwane mob resolved that the ‘two centres of power’ would not assist in forging unity within the ANC.

The problem we are facing as a country is that we a confronted with two uninspiring alternatives for leadership. The choice between Zuma and Motlanthe would not necessarily advance the necessary change but would serve to entrench the same preoccupation with self-enrichment and non-delivery of services to the people. What the country needs is a new engine and a competent driver at the wheel. What we have in the ANC is the same problematic engine in which we keep pouring new oil. The outcome is predictable and potentially disastrous.