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MINI-DOC — How South Africa Fell Apart: Mandela's Fading Dream

Since liberating South Africa from Apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s successors have fostered corruption and brought the country to ruins. What happened?



It’s February 14, 2018—Valentine’s Day—and at 5pm, without a date, you find yourself in your usual Johannesburg bar, when your bartender switches the channel. “President’s on,” he says. And there he is, except something is off. “Fellow South Africans.” You’re used to a defiant, intractable, fiery Jacob Zuma.“The National Executive Committee of the ANC has resolved to recall me as President of the Republic.”

This is a Jacob Zuma shaken and defeated. This is the end. The end of Jacob Zuma, and the end of the tragic story of how the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, once the liberators of South Africa, became the nation’s chief exploiters.

For the past decade, you’ve watched, and frequented this bar more and more, as your country, under the uncontested leadership of this party, has slipped deeper and deeper into despair. In the years to come, even with Jacob Zuma gone, his and his allies’ vicious pilfering of the nation will continue to echo as power outages become commonplace, public services deteriorate, and unemployment skyrockets. In just a few years, you’ll find yourself in this bar again watching the president who promised to clean up Zuma’s mess explain why his couch was stuffed with half a million dollars in cash.

This is the end of the darkest chapter of the ANC, but it is not the end of South Africa’s struggle. This is the story of how Nelson Mandela’s party betrayed South Africa, and it’s a story of a nation’s collective power to shape their destiny fighting against the tireless influence of the past on today’s potential.


Our story begins, predictably, with Apartheid, and no, just because you’ve seen Invictus, you don’t get to skip this section.

When the National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948, this white Afrikaner government radically increased racial segregation, barring Black South Africans from politics, depriving them of basic human rights,and consigning them to shanty towns.[1] This was ‘Apartheid’—’separation.’

The ANC, for its defiance, was quickly banned and many of its officials jailed, including Nelson Mandela. Driven underground and into exile, the ANC increasingly embraced a secrecy which would later haunt the party’s efforts to govern and develop a culture of accountability. [2]

Long before then, though, by the late 1980s, the Afrikaner government was beginning to collapse. Strikes, sanctions, and resistance led tacitly by the ANC drove the country’s economy into a downward spiral.[3] Increasingly decrepit and corrupt, the Afrikaner government recognized that it could no longer uphold this tyranny of a tiny minority.

At the end of the decade, formal talks began between the ANC and Afrikaner officials. The process was far from totally peaceful, but South Africa ultimately defied the world’s expectations by negotiating an end to Apartheid in 1994.[4] Released from prison, Nelson Mandela and his ANC comrades finally stood in South Africa’s first fully enfranchised democratic elections and won a staggering majority, making Mandela South Africa’s first Black president.[5]

This was the ANC’s greatest victory, not just for the party but for the millions of terrorized and abused Black South Africans, and indeed the challenges overcome in its realization were immeasurable. However, new challenges lay ahead. The ANC would not only need to abandon its culture of secrecy for one of accountability. It had a massive task in repairing the damage of Apartheid on the country. Profound inequality and racial resentment continued to flourish. It would take far more than this triumphant election. South Africa was embarking on a massive transformation. Could the ANC manage to follow suit?


Under Mandela’s leadership, the party got off to a solid start. Inequality decreased, economic growth picked up, and a truth and reconciliation commission began work to address past crimes without splitting the nation once more.[6] Things were, of course, imperfect—this new South Africa inherited the late Apartheid regime’s widespread corruption, and poverty remained endemic.[7]

Nonetheless, Mandela was respected for good reason, and real progress was being made.

It was under Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki that South Africa would face the real test. Mbeki’s record of service was impeccable, and he had been hand-picked by Mandela. Still, he was known as somewhat aloof and intellectual—far from his miracle-working statesman predecessor.[8]

Under Mbeki, South Africa saw some key successes. Integration with the global economy continued apace[9] and a degree of price stability[10] that had eluded the late Apartheid regime was achieved. GDP grew as well, and through the program of Black Economic Empowerment, a number of Black South Africans were able to achieve levels of wealth that had been impossible under white minority rule.[11] Moreover, swathes of the country once ignored saw the expansion of public infrastructure and finally achieved electrification.

Electricity, as it happens, would prove to be one of the party’s greatest early successes, as the state power company, Eskom, would be named the world’s best utility provider in 2002.[12] Though this was not to last, as we’ll soon see, those other successes had flip sides visible immediately.

Economic growth was slower than it should have been; unemployment was consistently high, often approaching thirty percent; and Black Economic Empowerment was hardly the achievement it seems from the name. In reality, the policy created a small number of Black millionaires and billionaires almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of the ANC—reflecting the party’s struggle to escape its past culture of unaccountability. It did essentially nothing to alleviate the poverty that was still the norm for most Black South Africans., and, in fact, may have worsened it, as inequality grew once more under Mbeki.[13] At the same time, corruption remained common, and under the essentially-uncontested ANC the distinction between party and state grew ever blurrier.[14] The party had yet a great deal of growing to do before it could escape the worst impulses from its time as an underground resistance movement.

Real successes though there were, the ANC under Mbeki was falling short of its soaring promises. Within the party, opposition was growing—opposition that would soon wreak havoc upon the rainbow nation.


For the leader of Mbeki’s opposition, it was personal. Enter, Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s former deputy President.

Why former? Well, Mbeki sacked him, just over a year prior, because Zuma was implicated in a corruption conviction and was standing trial himself for rape.[15]

But Zuma’s long career in the ANC—as well as the communist party—made him a credible left-wing foil to the liberal Mbeki , despite these clear character signals. Oh and his middle name literally means “one who smiles while causing you harm” in Zulu. Are you getting the picture about this guy?[16]

Anyways, at the party’s leadership election in 2007, Zuma declared South Africa needed a radical transformation and reinvigoration of the revolutionary spirit.[17]

In other words, this meant the ANC ought to abandon Mbeki’s liberalism and shrug constitutional constraints on the party’s behavior. Two ideas were core to Zuma’s pitch: cadre deployment and the developmental state.

Cadre deployment was a practice whereby bureaucracies, until now subject to some corruption but aspiring to meritocracy, would be staffed based not on merit but loyalty to the party over the constitution. It was a picture-perfect example of behavior useful in a clandestine resistance and extremely counter-productive in democratic governance. It was also critical to realizing the developmental state - the idea that government was a tool to be wielded by the ANC for national development and transformation in the name of much-needed social and economic justice.[18]

In essence, they combined to mean one thing — the party was more important than the state, the constitution, and their rules. Flawed as Mbeki was, this would be a major step backward in the ANC’s attempt to transform alongside the nation.

Zuma’s speeches were fiery and invigorating, while Mbeki’s were stolid and factual.

Zuma won.

Shortly thereafter Mbeki was foisted from office, and Zuma won the next election to become president in 2009.


No story better paints a picture of what happened next, of the reality of Zuma’s backward leadership of the party—of cadre deployment and the developmental state—than that of Eskom.

Talk about a recipe for boring - the governance dynamics of South Africa’s state-owned power utility.

Except, this is actually really important. South Africa is one of the world’s most energy-intensive economies, and Eskom supplies 90% of the country’s electricity.[19] Its budget for procurement—basically, coal purchases—in 2012 was about 13 billion dollars.[20] Eskom is a big deal.

And Zuma knew this, so he got to work reviving the party’s old ways. First up, cadre deployment — in 2010, a close Zuma ally was appointed to head the ministry above Eskom and quickly cleaned house, firing nearly the entire board and installing allies in their place. Independent auditors—an anti-corruption measure—were replaced by a friendly firm. Eskom was now subject to the whims of the party rather than the guidance of those loyal to the constitution—cadre deployment had done its job.

And this was the foundation of the next step: the developmental state. Zuma had promised an economic transformation and a renewed focus on Black Economic Empowerment: worthy goals but just the necessary cover for the board to abandon all standing rules regarding the selection of contractors for plant construction and coal supply. Zuma’s allies formulated new rules dropping procedural checks on potential contractors’ quality and fitness. The beneficiaries weren’t Black entrepreneurs but Zuma’s friends, family members, and loyal ANC comrades who were soon swimming in the cool, deep waters of Eskom’s massive budget.

Not only did the shoddy construction and overpriced coal that Eskom bought not improve social justice; it was South Africa’s poorest who ended up bearing the worst of the fallout. In a decade, electrical prices rose more than 400%. By 2019, blackouts — an occasional circumstance in years prior — were endemic. By September of 2022, more blackouts had occurred in those nine months than in Eskom’s entire history combined. By year-end, the total reached over 200 days.[21]

Deprived of crucial energy, South Africa’s economic growth has been massively constricted. Capital flight is now commonplace. Business investment lags. Unemployment, already devastatingly high, has risen alongside rising costs and worsening public services.[22] The people were victims of the ANC’s betrayal, its abject failure to change its ways and adapt to the needs of a new, democratic South Africa, to whom the party had promised so much.

Jacob Zuma came to power vowing to fulfill the dreams of Nelson Mandela. Instead, he used the nation as a piggy bank and left immense human suffering in his wake.


But wait a minute - if Zuma had been successful, how would we know all this? Surely it’d be under wraps.

And, honestly, anyone other than Jacob Zuma may have pulled it off. Odds are decent the beans were first spilled with some accounting mistakes. [clip] Numbers are hard for him.

No, the actual reason we know all these details is thanks to the tireless efforts of a number of investigative journalists in South Africa who dug deep, paid attention to quiet rule-breaking throughout the country’s bureaucracy, connected the dots, and reported this to the public.[23]

Under fire, Jacob Zuma resigned in 2018 and was succeeded by his deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who vowed to fight corruption.

Shortly thereafter, the government finally re-opened the unfinished investigation which got Zuma sacked in 2005, and opened another into the state bureaucracy to assess just how deep his rot had spread.

Finally in 2021, despite his best efforts to evade the Supreme Court, Jacob Zuma was sentenced to prison.

However, progress under Ramaphosa has been mixed at best. To the extent he is keeping his campaign promises, he is at war with his own party, an institution rife with Zuma supporters who benefited greatly from his status quo of corruption, and his nation remains the most unequal country in the world. He has a very long way to go before the ANC can claim it has come close to fixing the immense damage it wrought on the country it once liberated.[24]

It’s not for this channel to say what policies can or must be pursued to rectify things, but a few goals are undeniably clear. The ANC slipped into its old culture because it got comfortable and complacent with its hold on power. South Africa needs real political competition to force the ANC to clean up its act. It needs a broad middle class which feels it has a real stake in the country’s good governance. And it needs time—time and patience to untangle the knots in the rope the ANC and Jacob Zuma strung around this country’s neck.

It may sound far-fetched, even impossible, that South Africa could clamber out of its present state, and indeed success is far from guaranteed. But consider how far-fetched it may have seemed in the 80s or 90s that the apartheid regime could have ended in anything other than civil war, let alone an almost completely peaceful political settlement. Consider how far-fetched it may have seemed just 10 years ago that Jacob Zuma could have been unseated by a free press, let alone convicted by the courts, for his crimes against the country.

South Africa has yet a long walk to freedom and democracy ahead of it, but it has indeed walked longer and farther than many dared dream.

  1. Leonard Thompson, The History of South Africa (Yale University Press, 2000), 190-200. ↩︎

  2. Ibid., 207-213. ↩︎

  3. Ibid., 238-239; 232-236; 228-230. ↩︎

  4. Ibid., 241. ↩︎

  5. Ibid., 264. ↩︎

  6. Ibid., 274-278; 269. ↩︎

  7. Ibid., 278-286. ↩︎

  8. Iid., 244; 264. ↩︎

  9. World Bank, “Foreign direct investment, net inflows (BoP, current US$) - South Africa.” ↩︎

  10. Brahima Coulibaly and Trevon D. Logan, “South Africa's Post-Apartheid Two-Step: Social Demands versus Macro Stability,” for US Federal Reserve, 2009, pg. 3. ↩︎

  11. Jeffrey Herbst, “Mbeki’s South Africa,” in Foreign Affairs, 2005. ↩︎

  12. Cornelis F Swanepoel, “The Slippery Slope to State Capture: Cadre Deployment as an Enabler of Corruption and a Contributor to Blurred Party-State Lines,” Law, Democracy and Development 25 (December 14, 2021), 454. ↩︎

  13. World Bank Data ↩︎

  14. Herbst, “Mbeki’s South Africa.” ↩︎

  15. Wikipedia, “Jacob Zuma.” ↩︎

  16. Ibid. ↩︎

  17. Nicky Prins et al., Shadow State: The Politics of State Capture, Project MUSE (Wits University Press, 2018), 4 ↩︎

  18. Swanepoel, “Slippery Slope.” ↩︎

  19. Catrina Godinho, Lauren Hermanus, and Anton Eberhard, “Reconceptualising State Capture - with a Case Study of South African Power Company 
Eskom,” Public Affairs Research Institute, 2018.
    Note - the rest of this chapter continues to draw heavily from this conference paper, even if uncited. ↩︎

  20. Andrew Bowman, “Parastatals and Economic Transformation in South Africa: The Political Economy of the Eskom Crisis,” African Affairs 119, no. 476 (June 24, 2020): 395–431, 411. ↩︎

  21. Wikipedia, “South African energy crisis.” ↩︎

  22. World Bank Data ↩︎

  23. Godinho, “State Capture,” 14. ↩︎

  24. Ibid., 29. ↩︎


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