ANC supporters. Picture: REUTERS
ANC supporters. Picture: REUTERS

It is time to think aloud, to reflect publicly on what has gone wrong in the ANC, government and parliament, without any equivocation. The condition of our country is too serious for excuses and half truths.

The latest violent row in parliament reflects the turmoil in our society and a loss of direction across the board.

We face two major crises: the crisis in the economy and the moral crisis in public life. Unfortunately, the latter has captured public attention at the very time all should be focused on fixing the economy.

What went wrong in government over the past two decades? We all saw how incumbency led to a belief in entitlement, even in the early days of democracy. The philosophy of “it's our turn to eat” began to creep into public life. The tendency was not brazen at first and was lost in the turmoil and excitement of building a new democratic system with black people in command. But it was evident.

Ministers who had never before had a paid job wanted good salaries — at least as good as those of their white predecessors. Blade Nzimande, leader of the SA Communist Party, wanted a fancy car and got it. Some of his colleagues stayed in the very best hotels at state expense.

But it all seemed trivial in the context of the huge transformation taking place in our public institutions — until Jacob Zuma arrived at the top of the tree. Ministers and top officials lost a sense of what was correct conduct with public resources. Business-class travel was freely abused, claims for expenses rose freely, the Guptas were privileged guests at parliament's annual dinner and seated with Zuma at the top table. Ministers attended the infamous Gupta wedding and went to social dinners with their wives at Gupta events. Some leaders received substantial loans from dubious business people.

Paradoxically, none of this meant improved relations between the government and business. Instead, the goodwill of the Mandela-led transition soon dissipated and was replaced by mutual suspicion, even blatant antagonism. This is not the place to discuss the grounds for government antagonism — the legacies of apartheid’s extremes of exclusion and exploitation were overt enough — but I am concerned that the democratic government was unable to develop a principled relationship based on the need for coexistence.

There was obviously no possibility of the government taking over the heights of industry, or indeed managing large sectors of the economy. It had neither the political muscle nor the capabilities to do that. It didn’t even have the power, perhaps the intention, to reduce the excessive profits and wealth made possible by extremely low wages and the legacies of apartheid exploitation mechanisms.

Indeed, in the Zuma era there was little progress in building a more inclusive economy with genuine elements of redistribution. Instead, there remained in place a high degree of concentration, albeit in specific sectors of the economy rather than in distinct top commanding structures straddling key industries as under apartheid.

Instead of promoting genuine inclusiveness, we had numerous experiments with black economic empowerment that merely spawned a number of get-rich-quick black business people who were parasitic off existing white businesses and made little contribution to the productive capabilities of the country. And so emerged a new class of luxury-loving, conspicuous consumption business types who set new standards of profligacy, with their consumption weighted towards expensive imported goods.

Their conduct was emulated by politicians and senior public servants. Some of these people set themselves up as importers of goods that could be manufactured in the country, making money as middle men and eating into our foreign exchange.

We have created a black bourgeoisie on a scale that means inequality between black people is now greater than inequality overall. At the same time, the top 1% of our wealthy are increasing their wealth, while the majority are worse off. The former leaders of the ANC through its long history would not have recognised this as an advance to democracy, and nor should we. The picture is bleak. Whereas there was a time when Luthuli House represented a progressive force for democracy, it has now lost that status, which has shifted to the presidency.

Fortunately, Cyril Ramaphosa has restored some of the trust deficit and is able to interact with leaders of most sections of society. He is making some headway in overturning the most blatant corruption of the past.

We should not underestimate what he has achieved in less than a year, including the downfall of Zuma, the Guptas, Brian Molefe, Shaun Abrahams, Siyabonga Gama, Supra Mahumapelo, Tom Moyane and Faith Muthambi, not forgetting the heads of the SA Police Service and Hawks.

Hopefully he is not done yet.

•  Turok is a former ANC MP.