I suppose many former office holders from the Jacob Zuma presidency are asking the same question. How did he do so much damage to our governance system without arousing serious resistance? I was an ANC MP during his first term and I was even the co-chair of the ethics committee for two years, yet we never once discussed his disastrous wrongdoing and manipulation. Why was that?

I do not believe it was timidity; after all, we went all out on former communications minister Dina Pule and even got her to resign, so it was not for lack of courage.

The explanation may lie in two factors. First, Zuma and the Guptas were remarkably clever at concealing their manoeuvres. We knew that people were being shunted around, but it all seemed to be within the bounds of what presidents do, and when the media raised issues, we felt that much of it was based on gossip. There was so little clear evidence of wrongdoing.

Second, the ANC’s tradition of centralism meant Luthuli House was the fountain of all knowledge and decision-making and the rest of us were expected to fall in line. Luthuli House did all the deployments, they came to the ANC parliamentary caucus and laid down the political line, appointed chairs and whips of committees; indeed, they were the reference point for everything. And so we were deprived of essential information of what was happening throughout the governance system.

If the ANC is to learn anything from all that, it must be that over-centralisation enables wrongdoing to thrive. It must never happen again.

And so it turns out that the erosion of integrity in the state system gradually took hold, and belief in the ANC’s mission as a liberation movement began to fall away – both in the public domain but even within the ANC. This was why I declined to go back to parliament in 2015.

So where are we now? The ANC is clearly in severe distress and nothing could be more worrying than the report that the secretary-general, Ace Magashule, has been meeting with a cabal led by Zuma to unseat President Cyril Ramaphosa. It seems that Ramaphosa’s pleas for unity and reform are falling on deaf ears, and this is a severe blow to the ANC’s election prospects in 2019. Some will say that an ANC conference that elected known unscrupulous personalities to high office does not deserve to become a governing party again.

There is also the matter of coalitions. There seem to be some moves to build a kind of alliance with the EFF. This is the road to disaster for the ANC, since we know that EFF leader Julius Malema is a racist and a dangerous populist. A credible and legitimate ANC with its long history of non-racialism cannot associate with such scurrilous people.

Rather, the ANC must recover its deep roots among the poor and dispossessed and among committed cadres where there are still long memories of the sacrifices during the struggle.

That is where the real power lies, not in some short-term political arrangement in order to retain control in some local governments or even nationally. Power on these terms is not worth having.

So what must be done? It is clear that a great deal depends on Ramaphosa in his capacity as head of government. He says a great deal about corruption. But he also has to deal with the remarkable leniency of the state system to those elements being identified as corrupt.

Instead, we have monopolised control of different sectors, as the studies by the University of Johannesburg have shown, which exclude new entrants. Hence our appalling statistics about the tiny small enterprise area and hopeless informal sector, which is supposed to create plenty of jobs and business opportunities.

Why are the courts so tardy in dealing with crime against the state? We need vigorous action, not merely good intentions.

And on the key question of the economy, we now have ample evidence that SA is a high-profit, low-investment country, which is why we are the worst in the world on income and wealth inequality. We now have abundant data, including that provided in the recent World Bank reports, that our economic system is grossly unbalanced in favour of high rewards for the few, including astronomical bonuses for top management, yet poverty and unemployment is overwhelming.

Many official reports refer to the need for structural reform. But they all have a different understanding of what reform should look like. The fact is that we have a highly concentrated economy that generates substantial wealth for a relatively small number of people. And much of this wealth is externalised, so it does not build the economy. In short, it is a kind of colonial economy where extraction is the primary objective.

What is different about our present economy compared to what we inherited in 1994, is that we no longer have a small group of companies firmly in control of the whole economy.

Instead, we have monopolised control of different sectors, as the studies by the University of Johannesburg have shown, which exclude new entrants. Hence our appalling statistics about the tiny small enterprise area and hopeless informal sector, which is supposed to create plenty of jobs and business opportunities.

No wonder that the millions of people in our townships feel marginalised and inadequate. It is no accident.

We return to the question of what Ramaphosa should do. Many of the priorities have been identified in numerous reports. Employment creation is top of the list. Inequality is next – not just in incomes, but in opportunities, in access to skills, in doing business, in access to social services, and so many other areas. Why is it that the Group Areas Act has long gone, yet most South Africans still live in group areas?

Why is it that in an ANC-governed country — the ANC that was built by a young Nelson Mandela and many other young cadres — the youth feel marginalised and neglected.

Ramaphosa, working with that wonderful man Pravin Gordhan, must transform the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) away from profit-making organisations based on high administrative prices to organisations facilitating development. The Chinese formula of ensuring cheap, subsidised inputs generated by massive SOEs into the private sector and the public generally has obviously worked well.

But all these adjustments are not going to happen while the ANC continues bickering and without much more sustained civil society support for Ramaphosa.

Without being alarmist, the country is clearly at a crossroads. Far more is at stake than who is going to win the 2019 elections, vital as that is.

My hope is that a public momentum will build up behind Ramaphosa’s obvious good intentions that will overcome the nasty legacy of the Zuma years and build a new spirit among South Africans as a whole.

• Turok is a former ANC MP and now director of the Institute for African Alternatives.