South Africa faces multiple disasters: a combination of reckless misgovernance and now, with the worst drought in living memory, the Hand of God thrown in for good measure.

On the subject of the divinity, the old saw “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad” has been given a uniquely modern South African update.

You would imagine that, with the country experiencing a water deficit of 38billion cubic metres annually and needing an additional R30-billion to plug the hole in water service infrastructure, any government concerned with its citizens’ most basic needs would home in on this like a laser.

And then there is Eskom: after years of state-authorised looting, it has run out of credit lines and there is no more money. You would imagine this revelation would spark the government into action.

But you imagine wrongly, because you live in Jacob Zuma’s South Africa. While this newspaper on Monday headlined the fact that our dire thirst is the result of “collapsed infrastructure, theft and corruption”, the response of the Zumaites was to push forward with an unaffordable R40-billion for free university education – against the advice of their own Treasury, the president’s hand-picked judicial commission on the subject and the anticipation of the rating agencies. Our downgrade, which this reckless move will move from likely to certain and from next year to this, was the last thing on Zuma’s mind.

You would imagine that our dire water and electricity crises, our fiscal and revenue collection disasters, the horror of state capture, et al, would have been front and centre of the ruling ANC’s weekend national executive meeting and they would burn the midnight oil to try to stabilise the listing ship of state before it sinks under the weight of these catastrophes.

But, again, you imagine wrongly because you live in Zuma’s South Africa. From media reports and leaks, the conclave indeed went into overtime. But it had nothing to do with the crises of state and everything to do with provincial concerns bedevilling the ANC conference.

You would imagine on publication of Jacques Pauw’s explosive book The President’s Keepersthat there would be detailed denials refuting its most corrosive conclusions.

But, once again, you imagine wrongly because you live in Zuma’s South Africa. Instead of a push-back, the state security agency borrowed from the PW Botha toolbox and took to legal threats and intimidation in a vain attempt to cajole author and publisher to withdraw the book.

You would imagine that, having sent his minister of finance and business leaders to the financial markets in the US and UK last week in a last-gasp bid to prevent the foreign bondholders who finance much of our spiralling debt not to withdraw their funds, that the mission abroad would receive cover at home.

Yet again, you imagine wrongly because you live in Zuma’s South Africa. Governance here has been reduced to tactical game-playing, irresponsible – and far worse – fiscal incontinence and looting and plundering.

There is a mound of detail in Pauw’s book which charts the course to destruction which Zuma has ploughed these past eight years. Criminals, crooks, charlatans and chancers have been placed in key positions in the State Security Agency, the National Prosecuting Authority and, more recently, at the SA Revenue Service. Even an arch villain like Richard Mdluli, who has been on six years’ suspension on full pay from his position as head of police crime intelligence, continues to exercise dire and deep control – notwithstanding his own criminality and suspension. The roll call goes on and the suspects are well known and still in charge.

Of course, for the bad guys to succeed, it is necessary to displace or hound out the good ones, those who take their constitutional and lawful duties seriously. That’s why Pauw’s book is an excruciating read when you see the hounding of Anwa Dramat, Shadrack Sibiya, Johan Booysen – the Hawks with real wings – and Ivan Pillay and Johann van Loggerenberg at SARS. And to the list you can now add key Treasury official Michael Sachs. He resigned on Monday after the Treasury capitulated to Zuma’s free fees populism. Imagine a president who can’t manage his personal chequebook taking control of the national purse strings.

You would imagine that honest and effective and incorruptible public servants would be treasured, protected and promoted.

But you imagine wrongly, once again, because you live in Zuma’s South Africa.

Finally, when you read on the front page of the Sunday Times that the newly appointed minister to the key state security post, Bongani Bongo, is fingered in a corruption scandal for receiving illicit gifts of money for a house and luxury cars, you imagine the nation might be shocked. Or that the minister would meticulously contest the claims. Or sue the newspaper. Or be suspended from office pending a determination of the merits of the matter.

But of course, being Zuma’s South Africa, none of these things happen and even your wildest imagining of the horror of state plunder is blunted. You are now suffering from corruption fatigue, from what in the US during the carnage in the Vietnam war was called MEGO – “Mine Eyes Glaze Over”.

So finally, in this race to the bottom or reversing our death spiral, one question remains to be answered and here you do require some imagination: Who is going to win? Zuma or South Africa?

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
  • Featured in The Times