President Jacob Zuma, trying to fend off a challenge to his leadership, pulled out his secret weapon. Climbing on stage at a congress of the ruling party last year, he brought the audience to its feet to sing and clap along as he crooned a poignant ballad about Nelson Mandela.
By the time he finished singing, the crowd was his. Mr. Mandela had been retired for 13 years, yet he remained one of the few unifying figures in the ruling African National Congress, the party he had long led. Invoking his name and singing his praises is still an essential requirement for political credibility in South Africa today, and every party does it.
But Mr. Mandela's death only highlights the gulf between his achievements and the decline of his ANC heirs. His passing has left the party in a fractious mood. The party still has a grip on electoral power, but it is scandal-plagued, morally challenged, and widely criticized for corruption, cronyism and occasional violence. The ANC has always been heavily influenced by its leader's personality, and this is not Mr. Mandela's party any longer.
Seeking distraction from its current woes, the ANC takes every opportunity to remind voters of its famed history as a liberation movement. Its 100th anniversary last year was an opportunity for great fanfare and expensive revelry. Next year the party will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the defeat of apartheid, marking the occasion with another big bash – conveniently around the time of the upcoming national election.
The ANC is likely to win the election again, but with a reduced majority as its support begins to wither. Most black South Africans remain loyal to the party that helped liberate them from apartheid, but their loyalty is becoming strained as the ANC is increasingly seen as venal and cynical.
The political scandals of the past 18 months have only heightened the contrast between Mr. Mandela's moral authority and Mr. Zuma's dubious ethics. Some have led to bloodshed: the police massacre of 34 protesting miners at Marikana last year, for example, and the deaths of 15 soldiers at rebel hands in the Central African Republic when Mr. Zuma inexplicably sent troops to prop up an autocratic crony.
Other scandals have merely led to embarrassing losses of money and pride. At Mr. Zuma's lavish village home, mysterious "security upgrades" (as they are officially called) have cost $27-million to the national treasury, with an investigation revealing that the costs were inflated for a swimming pool and other personal benefits. There was widespread outrage when Mr. Zuma's close friends, the Gupta business family, were allowed to send a private jet with 270 wedding guests to land at a South African air base, where the guests avoided customs checks and enjoyed a police escort to the wedding.
The ANC has been criticized for neglecting major crises in rural schools and public hospitals, and an epidemic of sexual assault. Public sector corruption has been growing, and some elements of the ANC have been implicated in violent attacks on whistleblowers and political rivals.
Mr. Zuma himself has been accused of ethical missteps, with a child born out of wedlock, a trial and acquittal on rape charges, and a narrow escape on technicalities when he was charged with corruption in a massive weapons deal.
His government has introduced a controversial bill to control state information, known as the secrecy bill, despite protests from civil society groups who see it as a tactic to cover up corruption and shield officials from scrutiny.
When questions proliferated about Mr. Zuma's expensive village compound and its costly government funding, his home was declared a "national key point" under apartheid-era legislation, and its costs were deemed confidential.