RW Johnson in his new book and a follow-up series of articles on Politicsweb has as his theme How long will South Africa survive? The Looming Crisis. This involves him covering many more aspects of the subject than can be answered short of writing another book.
However, something should be said regarding the specific point of the role a new leader might play after replacing the compromised President Zuma. On this question, Mr Johnson naturally raises the name of Cyril Ramaphosa. Along with commentators who identify leadership as both the problem and the solution to the country's woes, many South Africans would see Mr Ramaphosa as at least a candidate for next president on his qualities as a leader. He is strongly placed also by being deputy president already.
But Mr Johnson does not fancy Mr Ramaphosa's chances of 'reversing the present downward drift' even if he wins the leadership struggle. He writes:
"What discussions [of the leadership struggle] lack is the comprehension that the visible decline in South Africa's governance and economic management is not finally to do with this or that leader; it is a social process" [emphasis in original].
This assertion seems oddly out of place coming from Mr Johnson. He is hardly a communist and, one imagines, no Marxist either. Perhaps he means only, as he puts it in his last article, that Cyril Ramaphosa, "lacking any real base within [the ANC] system .. would be even more at its mercy .. The system would prevail."
There seem to be two worthwhile points to make here. The first is academic. If Mr Johnson is not intending to suggest determinism by his reference to 'a social process', then politicians, including all contemporary politicians in South Africa, have agency - meaning they are not entirely at the mercy of circumstances. It will not help to argue or elaborate this point further. Those who believe people are puppets out of stupidity, or made so out of the promise of money, will not be persuaded otherwise.
The second point cannot be set aside, one way or the other, so easily. Even if Mr Ramaphosa is at the mercy of the ANC 'system', all the rest of the ANC and all the rest of SA's complex society are not. Certainly not indefinitely, come what may.
The key point to grasp in SA's early stage democracy is the 'system' that no leader can presently beat is not the ANC per se: it is one-party government that equates the ANC with the state. This built-in hegemony, originally the outcome of well managed events, has political and economic effects today that are very much open to challenge. But it has shaped the country's moral climate and response to them. Until recently, it was unpatriotic to take sides against what the party of liberation said or did, not to mention 'racist' and imprudent to do so. President Zuma still appeals to South Africans to be 'patriotic'; he means support him and the ANC in all they do. Who seriously believes that can work as it once did?
Mr Johnson’s impossible-to-beat ‘system’ cannot of course finally change until the ANC loses its virtual monopoly of power. That is coming, fast or too slowly depending on your views, through social and economic changes no one controls and that inevitably produce all manner of opposition.
It is arguable what form this opposition is taking and how it will work out. Instead of Tony Leon not so many years ago, followed by Helen Zille, there is a new and articulate young black man at the top of the DA. There are the extraordinary claims for Mr Malema as next, or at least a future, SA president. That this idea is entertained at all is because of his supposed appeal to 'the young', the future being the young. There is the real time, real split in Cosatu and the prospect of Numsa and other affiliates forming a workers party.
SA is a changing situation in a rapidly changing global world. Different 'class' interests are stirring the pot, but not in the old decisive Marxist sense: the ANC operates in an infinitely more complicated social and political context than Marx ever imagined.
The bigger truth is all of us, the ANC included, are currently living in a patronage phase with the resulting infighting, incompetence and stalemate Mr Johnson lists. But these are more symptoms than causes. 'The ANC' is not uniquely flawed intellectually and morally to a man - and woman. Nor is SA's 'decline', if that is what it is called, a 'social process' that is determined; it is as open as ever to change as SA's underlying politics changes and different leaders adjust to it.
Leadership, or lack of it, will always play its due role in events, and events in determining leadership.