Twenty years after the new South Africa emerged from the quagmire of apartheid to vote for the first time by universal franchise for a parliament, the African National Congress is sure to win yet again. The parliament elected on Wednesday is in turn virtually certain to reappoint President Jacob Zuma to run the rainbow nation.
Both the ANC and Zuma have been heading the wrong way, however. They have let down Nelson Mandela. They no longer deserve to rule.
Judged by the past two decades, the ANC has undeniable achievements to its credit. Thanks in large part to the magnanimity of Mandela but also to that of other ANC leaders, the transition from white-minority to black-majority rule was miraculously smooth. A confident and impressive black middle class has emerged. At the other end of the scale, the proportion of South Africans living in absolute poverty has declined from 41 per cent in 1994 to 31 per cent at last count, according to the World Bank. Many millions more have decent housing, electricity and drinkable water. The economy has grown at an annual average of 3.3 per cent since 1994, a little slow by emerging-market standards but hardly disastrous.
Even so, the negatives have been steadily piling up. The presidency of Thabo Mbeki between 1999 and 2008 was marked by increasing intolerance, including a readiness to resort to racially tinged abuse, that began to permeate the ANC.
Among other failings, the woeful denial of the HIV/AIDS plague by Mbeki and other ANC leaders caused untold needless misery and death. Zuma, in charge since 2009, has a sunnier temperament and a cannier political sense than Mbeki. He could have pushed through tricky reforms, but has lacked the vision and courage to get much done.
Two particular scourges have worsened under his rule: the lack of jobs and the spread of corruption. The number of unemployed South Africans, now a third of the working-age population if you include those who have given up looking for jobs, has risen sharply under Zuma. The economy has stagnated at a time when the rest of Africa is starting to boom.
As for corruption, it's growing apace. The ANC gives the impression South Africa is a de-facto one-party state where only its friends should get the plum jobs and contracts. Zuma himself is sorely tainted by scandal and dubious friendships. In addition, mindful of the menace to the ANC of Julius Malema, a racist firebrand who has set up a populist splinter group, Zuma has felt obliged to match him with legislative proposals that, if enacted, would put off much-needed investors.
Today the ANC pretends to be all things at once while resting on the laurels of liberation. Unless it undergoes its own drastic reform and rebirth, which seems unlikely but not inconceivable, South Africa would be better off if the party were to split in half. Then voters would have a real choice between a socialist party, backed by trade unions and communists, and a social-democratic, market-friendly one.
Meanwhile the party with the best ideas is the liberal Democratic Alliance, the main opposition, which is led courageously by Helen Zille, a white former anti-apartheid activist. The DA deserves to be endorsed. It has doggedly promoted nonracial and liberal values and sensible economic policies. It has a decent record in government as the party that has run the Western Cape province since 2009 and the city of Cape Town for several years longer. It stands for many for the hopes and values of the post-apartheid black middle class.
Sadly, although the DA has been gaining ground, it has no chance of winning. Because it depends mainly on support from whites and citizens of mixed-race or Indian descent, it is unlikely to get much more than a fifth of the vote. This means the ANC probably will be in power for at least another 10 years.
Without Mandela, his party has lost its way. Unless it reinvents itself or splits, South Africa increasingly will flounder under its rule.