The historic social contract between government and society forged in the political settlement leading to the 1994 elections and subsequent adoption of the Constitution has unravelled badly. "But," we are told, "Cyril is back in the inner circle of government. The crisis will be fixed." The hope is that Cyril Ramaphosa will become the de facto prime minister, albeit under the watchful eye of President Jacob Zuma and the party elite. The fear is that the inner rot in government is too deep, President Zuma too obdurate, ANC bosses too powerful and the president's acolytes too dependent on the party machine for Ramaphosa to succeed. The question is whether this master negotiator, one-time labour leader and skilled businessperson can prevail against an ideologically entrenched political bureaucracy.
The growing disconnect between the super-rich and the middle class on the one hand, and those left behind in poverty is widening with frightening alarm. The number of young people who languish without a decent education, healthcare or a viable job is morally repugnant and represents a grave threat to political stability.
The aftermath of state terrorism and apartheid weighed heavily on the ANC when it first came to power. The cold truth is that the new regime has not done enough to redress the economic consequences of apartheid. This much we know. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to do something about it. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: "The gravy train stopped just long enough for a few fleet-footed comrades to jump on board."
Effective leadership must promote moral principles that go beyond political talk and empty promises. Values need to be embedded in policy implementation and the practices of good government. The ANC has gone beyond any previous government in articulating the boundaries of good governance. A public protector and an auditor general have been appointed to deal with instances of maladministration and corruption, and the 2005 Government Gazette deals extensively with public procurement regulations and procedures designed to combat corruption and theft. It is the lack of a resolute commitment by political leaders to act against comrades and benefactors that is not there. This is bad for politics, bad for business and bad for public morality. The behaviour and excessive salaries of politicians, business leaders and others need to be measured and acted against in an uncompromising manner if found wanting. It is insufficient simply to redeploy a cadre, who soon reappears elsewhere in an equally lucrative position, with the revolving door between government and business turning with little more than a gentle squeak.
Corrective action demands more than a set of pious moral absolutes. It requires what Max Weber called an "ethic of responsibility," wrought in political realism, implemented on the basis of decisive principles and driven by strong leaders. The specific shape and identity of these principles need to be forged through fearless political and moral debate. The present decay tells us that they need to include:
Timing is of the essence in any political intervention. The ANC has, arguably, anticipated the extent of the disenchantment with government in electing Ramaphosa as the party's deputy president, and his political acumen should not to be underestimated. If politics is as much about the self-interest of the ruling party as anything else – and it is – then the forces for good, both within and without the party, need to generate maximum pressure for productive change.
Power corrupts and there is enough power in the ruling party, if left unchecked, to corrupt totally. It is this that gives rise to the need for a new coalition of citizens, committed to resisting further exploitative encroachments on political decency. This could be a game-changer for the country.
Charles Villa-Vicencio was the national research director of the Truth and Reconcialtion Commission and is currently a senior research fellow in the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation