In the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s demise, South Africa is more profoundly adrift than it has been at any time since he retired from the country’s presidency in 1999. Lacking a moral compass, the country suffers from a widespread sense of malaise and underwhelming accomplishment.

Much of this despondency results from a nationwide distrust of President Jacob Zuma’s political direction, integrity and statesmanship. Mr. Zuma was tainted from the start of his presidency in 2009 by suspicions of complicity in a cash-for-arms scandal in the 1990s, when he was minister of defence.

Last year, he began using $21-million (U.S.) in state funds for “security upgrades” to his fortified mansion in his small home village in rural KwaZulu-Natal. He also appeared to give unusual concessions to sets of wealthy Asian entrepreneurs. One of those compromised projects is now known as Guptagate.

Mr. Zuma has also married six women and is married to four currently. He has fathered more than 20 children and has publicly expressed some rather relaxed opinions minimizing the dangers of AIDS.

None of this gives confidence to South Africans that their destiny is in good hands.

Nor are the President and his ruling African National Congress giving South Africans much hope of material prosperity. An official 25 per cent (and an unofficial 40 per cent) of South Africans are unemployed, and the national trade union allied to the ANC doesn’t want to dilute its members’ relatively high pay for the sake of those with fewer skills. More and more young South Africans are therefore pushed into the informal and criminal sectors.

Educational attainment for millions is limited, with many schools lacking facilities, textbooks, even toilets and (sometimes) teachers who teach all of every school day.

In the past month, there have been numerous violent protests in urban and peri-urban areas over drinking-water shortages, substandard housing and the failure of the country’s poorly trained, under-resourced and demotivated police to make African townships safe. South Africa remains one of the most violent and murderous countries in the world.

Residents accuse police and petty officials of wanton corruption. There have been recent suggestions in the media that contracts for lucrative fishing licences were awarded improperly. Several national police commissioners have lost their positions after investigations into their ties to criminal gangs, narcotics trafficking and influence peddling. A recently retired judge reported that he stepped down from the bench because of rampant corruption at every official level.

This loss of legitimacy, after 20 years of freedom, should by rights end the ANC’s political ascendancy. But most opinion polls show that the May 7 parliamentary election will nevertheless be won again by Mr. Zuma’s party, if with a substantially reduced majority – from 65 per cent of the vote down to about 55 per cent.

Julius Malema’s populist, rabble-rousing Economic Freedom Front may gain 10 per cent of the vote, and the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, hopes to increase its support to 30 per cent of the total vote. The DA is led by Helen Zille, a white premier of the Western Cape Province surrounding Cape Town. (The president and deputy president are chosen by the winning parliamentary side.)

Given the ANC’s status as the movement that liberated South Africans from apartheid, the party’s political and economic control will be difficult to dislodge for many years. Despite its current disarray and the extent to which many South Africans feel let down or betrayed, neither Mr. Malema’s followers on the radical left or Ms. Zille’s on the good-goverance right stand much chance of matching the ANC’s ballot-box appeal.

Still, South Africa is becoming more bourgeois than ever. In addition to a new class of black capitalists, there is an emerging black middle class of both white- and blue-collar workers who, in time, may demand better national leadership and strengthened governance.

They cannot retrieve Nelson Mandela, and no plausible replacement for him has yet appeared. But, along with striking miners and protesters in the townships, the emerging middle class wants more than ever what Nelson Mandela promised 20 years ago – an honest, well-run government responsive to the needs of the people. How they will get it remains unclear.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.