Our apathy makes the ANC's avarice invincible
At a debate in East London last week, author William Gumede and political analyst Somododa Fikeni underlined the challenge we face as a diminishing ANC fights ever more desperately to hold onto its huge electoral majority.
The sizeable audience consistently signalled their agreement with Gumede's depressing analysis, which he spells out in his new book, Restless Nation, and queued for him to sign copies after the event.
Every reference to nepotism, corruption, patronage and self-enrichment was met with exclamations of agreement, if not with applause.
Fikeni's message was similar: our government and civil service have been taken over by a venal mob with a minimal interest in the people they purport to serve.
The goodwill that came with our liberation has been replaced by a toxic atmosphere, he said.
Gumede explained how South Korea, for example, chooses the most skilled people, regardless of political affiliation or activism, to run government departments .
When Gumede said civil servants in that country have to write an exam before they can be appointed, there were gales of laughter in the audience - clearly directed at our own bumbling, self-interested public servants.
But I would say it was safe to assume that most of those in the hall voted for the ANC in 2009 and will again do so in 2014.
Mvoyo Tom, the principal of Fort Hare University and moderator for the evening, lamented in his closing remarks that we appear as a nation to be getting used to voicing our disapproval, but doing nothing to follow up and demand action.
In market jargon, we have priced in our inevitable disappointment.
Gumede warned that we have reached a point where we adjust for the assumed corruption and incompetence of those who run the country for us, and we demand no better of them.
Part of his answer was that our government should move away from cadre deployment to the appointment of the best candidate for every job; we should stop allowing the ANC to appoint loyalists regardless of their skills and insist, for example, that hospital managers should be skilled in hospital management rather than party management.
It's a nice idea, but for that to happen we would need a complete overhaul of South African politics because we have structured our post-apartheid democracy on the link between party and privilege.
If the ANC were suddenly to start appointing apolitical or even opposition-aligned experts to every job, the party would not be able to claim credit for the good things that would happen.
The government might be able to say it was a consequence of good governance, but the direct link to the party and its structures, which now is deemed essential, would be broken.
We have seen in the Western Cape how hostile the majority party is to the notion that anyone else could do a better job than it has done. Instead of trying to learn from its own mistakes and those of other administrations, the style so far has been to smash everything that is not its own.
There is no real effort to tackle the ideological alternative offered by the DA on its merits. Instead, we get a somewhat desperate search for failures of governance in the Western Cape - and they are many - and an effort to represent them as the norm.
The switch that Gumede calls for is possible, of course. It happens in many countries that have not made cadre deployment the basis of public service. But to get there would require a leap of faith the ANC seems unwilling to contemplate.
In that better political world, parties would contest on the basis of their policies, not patronage.
The ANC would go into that race with the same electoral advantage of earned loyalty that it has now, which would be a useful cushion during the transition from bad to better.
But the gap in party support would inevitably narrow as voters learnt that their future depends on the policies of the parties vying for their support, and not on the size of the pork barrel that each controls.
There are many signals coming out of the ANC that its better leaders recognise the trouble they are in and want to return to the value-based character that once made the party great.
But to do so requires a strong, principled leader - someone of the calibre of Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo - who is prepared to set the party on a new path.
FW de Klerk did that when he turned the National Party away from racial segregation, and persuaded a frightened white minority that there could be a future of non-racial national unity under a black government.
I have no doubt that some powerful ANC leaders know their party is sinking; that it is staking everything on short-term advantage for the few.
The question is whether any of them has the courage to stand up and speak for the values that all but those committed to their seat on the gravy train hold dear.
It's a showdown that has to happen if we are to turn away from avarice and resume our journey on the high road.
And the sooner it comes the better.