Ruling ANC to go on trial in 2014 as South Africa looks forward

President Jacob Zuma was booed and jeered as he walked to the stage at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service earlier this month.

In 2014, one South African trial will captivate so many of us. Oscar Pistorius will go to court next March accused of the pre-meditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

But weeks after it begins, there will be another high-profile trial, of sorts, which will have a far, far greater impact on this country.

Twenty years after the birth of democracy, when long queues of first-time voters snaked around polling stations, the country will hold its fifth democratic election, and the first since the death of Nelson Mandela. The ruling ANC will, in effect, be in the dock.

The vote will be seen by many as a referendum on the success of ‘The Rainbow Nation’ – and by some as a trial for the tribulations of a generation of freedom.

The timing is important. Although many South Africans will see a vote for any party other than the ANC as a betrayal of those who fought the struggle against apartheid, there may be many others - black and white – who will have seen Mandela’s death as a time to turn the page. And with tens of millions of South Africans young enough to have been ‘born free’, the impact of the ANC’s successes of the past are dwindling.

One important point to keep in mind: South Africans are rarely predictable. It’s difficult to gauge the feeling of ‘the national mood’ in such a diverse country. For example, when many foreigners talked of a ‘race war’ when Mandela passed, South Africans responded by joining hands and singing songs in the street instead.

It will be the first democratic election in South Africa since the death of Nelson Mandela. Credit: Reuters

Returning to Johannesburg this morning, I spoke to tourists and airline workers at the baggage carousel who said they’d been told to watch out for ‘post-Mandela violence’. Their contingency planning will almost certainly prove to have been a waste of time.

But, you can feel something changing in the early days of the ‘post-Mandela age’. Many South Africans are impatient and angry - with their leaders, perhaps, rather than with each other.

President Jacob Zuma was booed and jeered as he walked to the stage at Mandela’s memorial service earlier this month – humiliated in front of the nation, and visiting heads of state.

It appeared to be a statement of the disappointment that many South Africans feel in the country’s present-day leadership, in contrast to the hope of the Mandela years.

South Africans remember Nelson Mandela at a memorial service at the FNB Stadium. Credit: TT News Agency/Press Association Images

One reason for that disappointment is the scandal of Zuma’s £12million state-funded security upgrade to his private home. A report by South Africa’s top public corruption fighter – leaked to a newspaper in the days before Mandela’s death - said that Zuma had derived “substantial benefits” from the modifications to his home, which he had said were required for national security reasons.

Despite those claims of widespread corruption, the ANC is unlikely to lose the election. But its majority might be dented by a popular feeling that it’s time for a change. Smaller parties are threatening to chip away at its dominance - each claiming to be the true guardians of Mandela’s legacy.

There is agreement among the parties that Mandela’s vision for South Africa was the right one, but wild disagreement on how that might be achieved.

So, look out for this important moment in South Africa next year, just after the trial of Oscar Pistorius. After 102 years of the ANC, the real ‘trial of the century’ for South Africa.