This will be South Africa's second World Cup. The first was much smaller than the impending football jamboree. But the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an extraordinary affirmation of the country's recent transition to democracy, celebrated joyously with the host nation's victory. More important than the result was the masterful moment of reconciliation politics in which Nelson Mandela appeared in the shirt of the South African captain François Pienaar, acknowledging that the newly empowered majority had embraced the game of apartheid, that we were now "one nation, one team". This was the apex of "rainbow nation" symbolism, a new democracy brimming with hope and promise. The country that will host the 2010 Fifa World Cup has lost this illusory lustre.
For though a post-apartheid South Africa will always be an improvement on its racist, oppressive precursor, Mandela, the man-myth, has been replaced by Jacob Zuma, an all-too-human leader whose corruption and rape trials have inflicted permanent damage. Zuma's ineffective leadership of a divided African National Congress party and government has done little to suggest he might yet meaningfully address the huge challenges facing South Africa. The latest UNDP Human Development Index figures rank South Africa 129th out of the UN's 182 member states. The difference between this measure and the country's GDP, as well as its Gini coefficient score, make it the world's most unequal country, a worse position than before the dawn of democracy.
In 2006, it was calculated that just over 34 per cent of South Africans had lived on less than $2 a day during the preceding 14 years. A 2009 calculation shows that almost 43 per cent do now. Even worse, life expectancy has fallen by 13 years in a similar period.
This is not just a consequence of Thabo Mbeki's shameful Aids denialism, which, according to a Harvard University study, resulted in at least 355,000 avoidable deaths. It is also a consequence of the impact of the disease of grinding poverty, and of the continuing high rate of violent crime, which results in roughly 50 murders a day, as well as an ineffectual health and education system.
Far from the people
All this, in turn, is made possible by a largely unaccountable and sometimes corrupt ruling class that has abandoned many of the ANC's founding principles in order to enrich itself. The quality and depth of leadership, so impressive in 1994, is, with a few exceptions, woeful. No one reflects this more than the thuggish leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, an heir to Mandela in title alone. Malema's racist rants, idiotic pronouncements and intolerance of criticism are usually glossed over by the party leadership, which depends on his support. The most severe and only punishment has been a gentle rap over the knuckles for his vocal support of Robert Mugabe.
While I don't believe his singing of racist songs about killing white farmers contributed to the murder of the far-right leader Eugene Terre'Blanche in April (the latter's brutal treatment of his farmworkers was a far more likely cause), Malema's tirades further undercut the reconciliation gains made under Mandela. The xenophobia that reared its murderous head in 2008 against immigrants from elsewhere in Africa is an even uglier manifestation of how much the country has changed since the early days of democracy.
SGL, an engineering company with which Malema has been associated, has benefited from large state tenders. Malema has denied he is still a director of the firm. The practice of high-ranking members of the party, and those close to them, benefiting from decisions about tenders of the government has become so widespread that the title "tenderpreneur" has been coined to describe the beneficiaries. The tenderpreneur could not be more different from the idealistic, committed activists with whom I was privileged to be elected to parliament in 1994. A minor incident illustrates how far from "the people" some of these activists have strayed. A party cadre I knew in the early 1990s as humble, smart and unassuming spent, after becoming a provincial minister, almost £10,000 of taxpayers' money on a dinner for guests and friends at one of Johannesburg's leading restaurants. That is more than most South Africans earn in a year. When a journalist from one of the country's leading papers asked him what he had to say to members of the public who had complained about the bill, the minister in effect told them to go to hell.
He is now head of the ANC in one of the country's most powerful provinces.
How has the hopeful young democracy that cheered the Springboks' rugby triumph in 1995 become so much like most other countries in today's tawdry global polity? The ANC lost its moral compass towards the end of Mandela's reconciliatory term of office with two signature moments - the decision to spend huge amounts of money on weapons we didn't need and the party's inability to challenge Mbeki's Aids denialism, dating as far back as his tenure as deputy president.
The decision to spend between $6bn and $8bn on hi-tech weaponry was driven by an estimated $300m of bribes. Anti-corruption investigators in South Africa and Europe allege that these were paid to the then defence minister, Joe Modise, other officials and the party itself by European companies that were awarded contracts, most of them in highly controversial circumstances. As a senior member of the party's top executive body told me, "We used the money to fight the 1999 election."
Coalition of the disaffected
Even more destructive than this waste of money - at the time that Mbeki was claiming the government could not afford to provide antiretroviral medication to the five million South Africans then living with HIV and Aids - was the undermining of the country's hard-won democracy in order to stop truth emerging. Parliament was turned into a rubber stamp, and has remained one, with ANC MPs instructed to vote in favour of whatever the leadership proposed.
This was in marked contrast to the way in which ANC MPs had challenged the executive, as the constitution envisaged, in the first four years of our democracy. Investigative bodies were undermined by Mbeki instructing them exactly who and what they could and could not investigate. The prosecuting authority was similarly undermined and politicised. The more effective anti-corruption agencies were dissolved. My colleagues in parliament, with very few exceptions, reacted with anger and outrage when I defied the leadership and continued to investigate the arms deal. My removal from the investigating committee and ousting from parliament acted as a salutary warning to anyone who challenged the leadership.
The realisation that they could get away with it, despite the best efforts of investigative journalists and a handful of brave MPs, emboldened the ANC leadership to engage in a series of other suspect deals in the oil, telecoms and power sectors. These always benefited not just individuals, but also the financial position of the party, which at its triennial conference in 2007 boasted a surplus of about £150m.
The abject failure of MPs and other influential ANC leaders to hold the party to account was mirrored when Mbeki's Aids denialism wreaked havoc on the country. Critical debate was supplanted by obsequious support; party loyalty was the only political currency. The key to this change among individuals who had so bravely fought apartheid was either the belief, fostered among ANC exiles, that it was disloyal to speak against the party, or simply the benefits of patronage, which included the fear of losing one's seat in parliament and its attendant material rewards.
It was only the ANC's allies in the trade union movement who spoke out against both the arms deal and Aids denialism. So desperate were they to rid the ANC of Mbeki's autocratic and paranoid leadership that they were prepared to support his nemesis, Zuma, despite Zuma's rape trial and his embarrassing statements about Aids protection and gender relations, as well as the myriad corruption allegations against him.
But the trade unions did not speak out when the 783 counts of corruption against Zuma were dropped in controversial circumstances - or when, using legislation intended only for inmates in the final stages of a terminal illness, Zuma's financial adviser Schabir Shaik was released from prison after serving barely over two years of a 15-year sentence for corruption. South Africa's prosecutorial and judicial system has been further damaged by this cleaning of Zuma's legal slate.
To his credit, Zuma has been open about the mistakes the ANC made on Aids and in other areas. But his government has not yet addressed the desperate needs of the country's poorest citizens. Partly this is because of the limited capacity of the bloated public service, its unaccountability and widespread corruption. Yet it is also a consequence of Zuma's attempt to keep happy the coalition of the disaffected that brought him to power. Ideological differences, along with the president's seeming inability to impose direction on the coalition, have thwarted coherent governance. Zuma's allies on the left are the least happy, charging their man with maintaining economic policies that hinder social change.
This dissatisfaction with the country's inequalities has fuelled ambivalence towards the World Cup, which begins on 11 June. The prominent columnist Jabulani Sikhakhane gave voice to this when comparing the deaths of 17 infants in public hospitals in a fortnight, because of a lack of basic medical equipment, to the more than £90m invested in the health facilities demanded by Fifa for the month of the tournament. "It's a shame," Sikhakhane concluded, "that a country that invests more than R1bn in order to meet the [health] requirements set by the gods of world soccer is incapable of preventing the deaths of its babies."
Trouble at home
Fifa has hardly endeared itself to those living on South Africa's margins by creating exclusion zones around the stadiums and parks where the games will be held, thus preventing informal traders from plying their wares anywhere near the showpiece event. Initially excluding local artists from the cultural events that will open and close the tournament was hardly a recipe for local support, either. While a few prominent South Africans have now been included in the line-ups, the event anthem, composed and performed by the Colombian singer Shakira, still irks many South Africans, judging by the numbers of irate callers to phone-ins.
With the World Cup mascots manufactured in China and McDonald's the official restaurant of the tournament, many are questioning whether South Africa will reap adequate economic return on its estimated £3bn investment. Reports that less than half of the anticipated foreign tourists will turn up for the event - with only about 11,500 expected from the rest of Africa - because of cost issues and security concerns, have further depressed the economic picture. The temporary, low-skilled and poorly paid jobs that preparations for the tournament have generated will not constitute a solution to South Africa's unemployment rate, which is calculated at between 27 and 37 per cent. There are already mutterings of contracts going to politically connected tenderpreneurs.
In this sports-mad and once-isolated country, the World Cup will no doubt engender a feel-good factor - even if, as seems likely, the home team struggles, unlike the rugby team of 15 years ago. Just having the eyes of the world on South Africa again will be a reaffirmation of our remarkable transition to democracy. But it will also confirm that our democracy has been tarnished. For when the Fifa grandees (no strangers to allegations of corruption themselves) and the welcome visitors depart, South Africa will be feeling better about itself, but will still face the same challenges, for which there will be slightly fewer resources.
Andrew Feinstein is a former ANC MP
An updated edition of his book "After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa's Uncertain Future" is out now (Verso, £8.99)