South Africa’s “miracle,” the great nonracial constitutional accord negotiated in the early 1990s, is in deep trouble. Ten years ago, Jacob Zuma was elected leader of the ruling African National Congress. At the ANC’s 2007 national conference, 60% of delegates voted for Zuma in full knowledge of the 783 outstanding fraud and corruption charges against him.

They chose Zuma as their candidate because of his struggle credentials, his charisma and his appeal to African traditionalists — he has four wives and 22 children and delights in dancing and singing revolutionary songs at rallies. However, Zuma turned out to be a far more formidable politician than they had anticipated. They have once again been sidelined and now bitterly regret their role in his ascendance.

In 2008 Zuma and his supporters deposed a dumfounded President Thayo Mbeki and progressively jettisoned his policies. One of their first steps was to disband the “Scorpions,” a corruption-fighting unit that had relentlessly investigated corrupt officials, including Zuma himself many other senior ANC members. Soon after being elected President in 2009, Zuma began to seize personal control of key state institutions by appointing loyalists to lead them, in a process now referred to as ‘state capture’. Those under his control include the National Prosecuting Authority; Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (better known as the “Hawks,” South Africa’s version of the FBI); the intelligence services; and possibly even the new Public Protector, or state ombudsman, whose predecessor, Thuli Madonsela, had done much to expose state capture, as well as vast levels of public spending on Nkandla — Zuma’s own retirement home.

These institutions are now routinely abused to harass Zuma’s opponents and to protect corrupt friends and allies. Parliament has all too often been an uncritical rubber stamp for his policies. Legislators have failed to exercise proper oversight to prevent corrupt practices.

The erosion of the independence of these constitutional institutions has released a flood of corruption. Media accounts, along with a report from the former Public Protector, show that the three Gupta brothers, Indian-born business magnates, have played a brazen role in this process. They are closely associated with Zuma and have allegedly, according to thousands of leaked emails, siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from state contracts including $400 million from a recent locomotive deal — and $2.3 million to finance the lavish wedding of one of their nephews. The Gupta brothers deny all wrongdoing.

The ANC’s policy of “cadre deployment,” its euphemism for appointing party loyalists to key posts despite their lack of skills and experience, also has weakened government departments and debilitated state-owned enterprises. Since 2007, South Africa’s government has abrogated bilateral investment treaties with 13 European Union countries. It has adopted a new mining charter that would ratchet up requirements for black shareholding and management, though the policy is now shelved by legal challenges from the mining industry. The Zuma government is adopting legislation to limit land holdings and prohibit foreign ownership of agricultural property. Zuma has threatened to expropriate white-owned farms without compensation to accelerate land reform.

These actions, together with President Zuma’s decisions to fire two competent and principled Finance Ministers, Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015 and Pravin Gordhan earlier this year, have led to recession, ratings being downgraded to junk status and the discouragement of critically needed investment.

Finally, the Zuma government is actively undermining the racial reconciliation that Nelson Mandela worked so hard to establish after 1994. It has adopted an openly hostile attitude to whites whom it routinely characterizes as ‘“colonialists’” and blames for its own failures, including deepening inequality, unsustainable poverty and a 36% unemployment rate. The ANC is creating an adverse racial climate to justify implementing a “Radical Economic Transformation” that is aimed at further restricting white ownership, management and employment in the private sector.

All this — as well as the future leadership of the ANC and of South Africa — will be discussed at the ANC’s next National Conference in December. There are two principal candidates to succeed Zuma who will be stepping down as the ANC’s president after two terms. The first is Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the president’s former wife, and his preferred candidate. The second is the informal candidate of Zuma’s opponents, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a multimilliionaire former businessman and trade unionist. The successful candidate will succeed President Zuma as national president if the ANC wins the next election in 2019.

the Zuma government is actively undermining the racial reconciliation that Nelson Mandela worked so hard to establish after 1994. It has adopted an openly hostile attitude to whites whom it routinely characterizes as ‘“colonialists’” and blames for its own failures

There are many decent ANC members who are horrified by the direction in which President Zuma is taking the country. They would dearly love to put the ANC back on the road of constitutionalism, economic growth, social progress and non-racialism. Moderates fear that if they do not succeed the ANC will disintegrate and lose its once unassailable position in South African politics.

Inevitably, the ANC will find it difficult to accommodate its divergent factions. Some delegates will want to turn left and follow the South African Communist Party down the road to socialism. Others would prefer to remain on the gravy train of self-enrichment and racial entitlement. Still others want the ANC to return to the constitution and the vision of its founding fathers. Such a split could lead to a new political dispensation in which South Africans would come together on the basis of shared values and policies, rather than on race.

The good news is that the courts, civil society and the media are still free and remain vociferous opponents of abuse, state capture and corruption. South Africans of all races are increasingly angered by the exploitation and incompetence of the ruling elite. There is a good chance that in future elections — the next are scheduled for 2019 — they will make their voices heard.

South Africa would then be in a good position to achieve its enormous potential. My country has the world’s largest mineral reserves, a strong financial sector and a sophisticated industrial base—and it is at the gateway to Africa, one of the world’s fastest-growing markets.

A great deal is at stake. The failure of the “South African Miracle” would have a devastating impact across the southern part of the continent. It would be a serious blow for race relations everywhere and it would have a chilling effect on efforts to solve conflicts through peaceful negotiations and solemn agreements throughout the world. Success, on the other hand, could clear the way for South Africa — and the rest of Africa — to enjoy first-world prosperity and stability. That would be fitting validation for the great nonracial accord concluded with Nelson Mandela and other national leaders 23 years ago.

About the author

F.W. DE KLERK is a South African politician who served as the country's State President from August 1989 to May 1994. He was the seventh and last President of South Africa under the apartheid era. De Klerk helped to broker the end of apartheid, and supported the transformation of South Africa into a non-racial democracy by entering into the negotiations that resulted in all citizens having equal voting and other rights. He won the the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991, the Prince of Asturias Award in 1992, and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with Nelson Mandela for his role in the ending of apartheid. He was one of the deputy presidents of South Africa during the presidency of Nelson Mandela until 1996, and is the most recent white South African and Afrikaner to have held the position. In 1997 he retired from active politics. He continues to remain active as a lecturer internationally.