OPINION: Elitism, and not race, the biggest problem in SA today

The release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 marked a critical moment in South Africa's history.

It symbolised a changing country, with the apartheid regime settling on the fact that the vision of a racialised society could not survive beyond the 20th century.

The former regime read from the same script as the British and the French did in the 1950s and '60s, when they accepted that colonialism was not sustainable beyond World War 2.

After his release from prison on February 11 1990, Mandela, from the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall, declared: "I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people."

This declaration was more than a mere statement from a political prisoner, it was a prophecy of a servant of the people.

Mandela's idea of service was at the opposite end of our idea of a prophet - a holy human whose authority is from God, only to whom he is accountable.

Mere humans have no right to question a prophet's declarations or leadership.

We thought that was what Mandela was, our prophet from God. We wanted to listen to his perspectives even when he was on Robben Island.

We sang songs of freedom - his freedom, because we saw his freedom as the freedom of our prophet, whose leadership would lead us to a land of promise.

And when he left prison, he did just that - lead us to a promise whose realisation had delayed for centuries, as generations of South Africans waited for a prophet.

During former president Thabo Mbeki's administration, debates played out that Mbeki was too elitist, unable to relate to the conditions of ordinary South Africans.

Examples of his perspectives on the severity of crime, the causes of HIV, and market liberation which saw corporates as the main beneficiaries of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy - all these pointed to what we saw as the problem of elitism.

The poor were left out in the cold while elitists were well sheltered. The argument that Mbeki's administration was too elitist and non-consultative would eventually win the day, and Mbeki would be booted out of power.

When President Jacob Zuma took over, he was seen as pro the poor. But by now the vision of a pro-poor administration seems to have perished. Zuma's administration is not our biggest problem. Neither is the ANC.

One of the latest leaks from the Gupta e-mails reveals that even a leftist movement, Andile Mngxitama's Black First Land First, might have links with the Guptas.

Elitism is the glue that holds people with shared interests together regardless of their backgrounds.

Elite human beings, whether local or foreigners, black or white, liberal or conservative, young or old, always cross their social lines where wealth accumulation is involved.

We should not be surprised if there are revelations that even Zuma's enemies are captured by the Guptas.

Elites are not humble servants of the people, they are prophets in the Nelson Mandela sense, powerful and unaccountable.

And the apartheid regime created many prophets and few servants. The humble servants might have governed us first and briefly, but now we are governed by the prophets.

Elitism, and not race or poverty or unemployment, is South Africa's biggest problem today.