06/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Under Zuma, Mandela's Party of Liberation Struggles to Hold On To Its Roots

For decades, leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) sacrificed monumentally to give voice to South Africa's subjugated black majority. Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison, Oliver Tambo spent decades in exile, and Joe Slovo lost his wife to a letter bomb sent by the apartheid regime.

Sixteen years after apartheid collapsed, bringing the ANC to power with promises to build a "rainbow nation," Mandela is retired. Tambo, Slovo, and other heroes of the struggle have died. And today, the two most famous faces of the revolutionary party they led are President Jacob Zuma - known more for his messy sex life than for moral leadership - and the radical, divisive ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

Both men have made frequent international headlines this year - Zuma for his polygamy and fathering a child out of wedlock, Malema for his militant rhetoric that often takes aim at the white minority. Within South Africa, a country still plagued by poverty and an enormous wealth gap, the headlines have also revealed such extravagance by both men that one ANC political ally has demanded "lifestyle audits" for party and government officials.

"I think we are at a bad place in South Africa, and especially when you contrast it with the Mandela era," Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a hero of the anti-apartheid movement, said in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine. "Many of the things that we dreamt were possible seem to be getting more and more out of reach. We have the most unequal society in the world."

According to democracy experts, under the leadership of Zuma's generation, the ANC is at its weakest since ascending to power in 1994, and it is increasingly vulnerable to political challengers.

Nothing exposed the cracks in the ANC's political and moral authority as much as the revelation in January that Zuma had fathered an illegitimate child. Since he took office last year, Zuma had publicly urged "safe sex" to a nation where, according to the United Nations, approximately 11 percent of the population is HIV-positive.

The news of Zuma's child, apparently conceived with disregard to the president's own advice, was widely condemned. "The reaction was across racial, gender, and class lines," said Justin Sylvester, a researcher at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "Everyone was upset."

"Zuma's sex life has now come to represent what a volatile place the country is," said Jonny Steinberg, a South African policy analyst and former fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York. Steinberg believes that the South African public's "relationship to the people that govern them" is now fraught with distrust.

The out-of-wedlock child has even dismayed such stalwart ANC allies as COSATU, the country's congress of trade unions, said Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But Lyman believes the biggest crisis facing the ANC is Zuma's refusal to make public his financial holdings or to demand such disclosure by others in government.

"In Mandela's time, the ANC was imbued with the liberation struggle and the ideas for transforming South African society," Lyman said. "Since then, many have become entranced by power and its perks...corruption has seeped into even the highest ranks but with little accountability."

Indeed, Zwelinzima Vavi, the secretary general of COSATU, recently called for "lifestyle audits" of senior officials, including Zuma, who faced charges of corruption and racketeering in 2005, and the 29-year-old Malema, whose lucrative business dealings have come under increasing scrutiny by the press. Newspapers, including the Mail & Guardian, later reported that the president, a polygamist with three wives and a fiancée, receives approximately $2 million-per-year in "spousal support" from the government.

In the 1990s, when the ANC returned from exile and the collapse of apartheid was imminent, ANC officeholders - most of whom had little personal wealth - saw their political commitment as a "vocation," said Steven Friedman, the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg. But today, Friedman said, many in the ANC see political office as a means of exploiting the private sector.

Making matters more complicated, racial tensions have been simmering. The fiery Malema has been invoking an anti-apartheid song at political rallies from the days of the struggle that includes the lyrics, "Shoot the Boer," referring to white Afrikaans farmers. The ANC contends that the song is not an incitement to violence, but rather an important historical metaphor symbolizing the struggle against apartheid. The battle made its way to the courts, where a judge ruled that the song constituted hate speech and was unlawful. The ANC plans to appeal the ruling and hopes to have it reversed in the Constitutional Court, though at the same time party leaders have urged Malema to dial down his rhetoric.

But tensions boiled over shortly after the ruling. At the beginning of April, black farm workers killed their boss, Eugene TerreBlanche, the leader of an infamous white supremacist party. Some white South Africans, fearful of further acts of violence, blamed Malema and the song for the incident.

Meanwhile, the combatant Youth League leader made a high-profile visit to Zimbabwe earlier this month where he praised that country's autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, for his policy of forced land seizures from white landowners. Malema said South Africa needs to follow suit. Afterwards, an article in The Guardian reported that the man many South Africans, both black and white, compare to Malema "is not Mandela [once the leader of the ANC Youth League] but neighboring Zimbabwe president-cum-dictator Robert Mugabe."

The ANC's political woes can be traced to the party's December 2007 national conference, when then-president Thabo Mbeki came under attack from Zuma loyalists. Mbeki's government was investigating allegations of corruption against Zuma, who was then deputy president. Political analysts say pro-Zuma factions sought to derail any action against their favorite by weakening Mbeki. They first succeeded in ousting Mbeki from the ANC presidency. A few months later, the party forced him to resign the national presidency, months before his term was to expire, accusing him of political interference in the judicial process.

Within weeks, the century-old ANC had suffered its first political schism, with pro-Mbeki (and anti-Zuma) party members forming a breakaway party called the Congress of the People (COPE).

"The ANC went from one extreme to another," Friedman explained. "It went from a situation where nothing was ever contested within the party to a position of rampant contestation." As such, there has since been "continual jockeying [for power] within the ANC," he said.

Sylvester was more blunt. "The ANC is at war with itself," he said. Over the past 16 years, Sylvester said, there has been an "increasing disconnect" between the elite of the party and the ordinary voters who have traditionally empowered it. There is extreme competition for leadership positions at the top and the grassroots party members no longer know for whom, or what, they are working.

All of this has made the ANC "definitely more vulnerable to political challengers," Sylvester said.

Last month COPE and the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party, called for a parliamentary "no-confidence vote" against Zuma. While the motion was easily defeated in the National Assembly, it was an unprecedented move that many felt was a symbolic gesture highlighting growing dissatisfaction with the ANC.

However, COPE has thus far failed to make significant inroads with the ANC's traditional base, the black urban poor. But Friedman believes that a viable opposition party will inevitably emerge from within the ANC in the near future.

"COPE was the first breakaway," he said. "But not the last one."