In 2011 Xi Jinping was simply vice-president of China, before ascending to the top post as party general secretary (or supreme leader), to which he is set to be affirmed for a third term by his Communist Party at its 20th national congress. Back then he hosted a visit to his country by Joe Biden, also vice-president of the US at the time.

Reading the tea leaves in opaque China depends, to an extent, on glimpses and slips provided during such visits. Earlier in October The Economist provided a fly-on-the-wall account of one such meeting on that tour. Daniel Russell, then US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, recounts that the Chinese leader spoke “at considerable length” on the upheavals in 2011 that toppled dictatorial regimes in the Middle East during the so-called “Arab Spring”.

Xi mused on the probable causes: “He pointed to corruption, factionalism within ruling parties and leaders’ loss of touch with ordinary citizens and their needs. The same things could topple the Communist Party if it failed to get its act together,” Russell recalls XI saying.

It might seem piquant to quote views on popular discontent by someone who today has amassed more personal power in the most powerful authoritarian system in the world than any of his predecessors since Mao, who died in 1976. But even dictators, or leaders of one-party systems, need to take the public pulse as part of their political survival kit. And given Xi’s contempt for the alternative Western liberal democratic model, his views on regime endings via public revolt rather than the ballot box are noteworthy.

What Xi could not know then was that most “Arab Spring” dictatorships toppled in the mid-2010s would, after often the briefest democratic or semidemocratic detours, be replaced soon enough by another authoritarian outfit. Or have backslid into military rule or civil war.

Tunisia stands alone as the sole success story 10 years later. But even its democratic prospects remain “at risk”, according to Freedom House, the human rights and democratic change promoting organisation. “Endemic corruption, security threats and unresolved problems relating to gender equality” are cited as key obstacles to its full democratic consolidation.

Gender discrimination is the ostensible fuse that has ignited the latest and most searing revolt against authoritarianism in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police” for violating its strict religious dress code. Open defiance of the repressive theocracy that has held sway in Iran for more than four decades has swept the country even in the teeth of a fierce response from the regime.

Noteworthy too, though not conclusive of how it all might end, is that like the Arab Spring this mushrooming protest movement is leaderless and embraces multiple centres of discontent, hoovering up cross-class and generational dissidents from fed-up women to unhappy oil refinery workers.

In SA the Mbeki brothers, first Moeletsi and more recently Thabo, have both predicted that an Arab Spring moment awaits us. Arguably we have already endured versions of it, notably the July 2021 Durban riots and looting sprees, the multiple public, often riotous public protests of a lesser scale, and the continued vandalisation of public infrastructure. But of a fuse-lighting moment that could detonate government, there is, as yet, no sign.

Of course, warts and all SA is a democracy, and the fact that many citizens do not make the connection between voting choices and quality of governance — or its gaping lack — doesn’t remove this essential differentiator between an authoritarian regime where dissent is outlawed or deeply circumscribed, and a polity that accords opposition both operational and legal outlets.

On the basis that it takes a world-class autocrat to sniff out the most imperilling threats to regime continuance under all conditions, it is worth revisiting the XI playbook: corruption, governing party factionalism and leaders “who are out of touch with the needs of ordinary citizens”.

According to a recent poll more than 60% of its own supporters rate the ANC as corrupt, and the factionalism in the party is the stuff of legend. So too are its multiple splits, though these relate more to dividing the spoils of office and conflicts among personalities than any essential division on ideology.

“More of the same” versus a doubling down of the policies that have reduced the country to penury and worse, seem to be the only choices before party delegates at the ANC conference in December. For refreshed and honest thinking on genuine alternatives, or even much-needed U-turns on key policies, the Nasrec conference centre is the wrong address.

But the most curious, and arguably most threatening, item from the Xi tryptic that the ANC affirms with breathtaking indifference to its own presumed continuance, is its lordly indifference and even contempt for the sentiment and sensibilities of ordinary citizens.

Few people relate to reams of statistics spouted by the opponents of the ANC: from the rate of unemployment (35.5%) to the hours lost to load-shedding in 2022 (1,949 hours or 81 days), or even the increase in the price of electricity, when available, over the past decade (356%), shocking and searing as they might be.

But everyone relates to a simple story of how a tiny governing elite, especially one that self-references as “a liberation movement and government based on the will of the people” walls itself off on the taxpayer dime from the “lived experience” of the very same “people”.

In the past few days it emerged that no less an authority than the “people’s president”, Cyril Ramaphosa, recently and covertly scrapped the provision in the ministerial handbook limiting the amount the state (via the taxpayer) pays for ministerial water and electricity. Now, according to DA MP Leon Schreiber, SA’s gargantuan cabinet (28 ministers and 35 deputies) will be entitled to continuous, unlimited and free water and electricity at both their Cape Town and Pretoria residences.

The revelation occurred at the precise time when residents of Johannesburg were enduring in some cases eight days without water, and the entire country was being plunged into continued darkness for two to four hours every day. No indication yet of a U-turn on this national scandal.

In authoritarian regimes it took one young Tunisian vegetable seller who set himself ablaze to protest police harassment, to spark a revolt; in today’s Iran it was one woman’s arrest and death that triggered a national uprising.

The ANC used to comfort itself at election time that it had “a good story to tell”. The story now on offer is of a self-serving elite feeding deeply, even greedily, at the trough, and the rest, in the most economically distressed times since 1994, left literally out in the cold. It is not a good story to tell, and it may not have a happy ending.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.