Aleading black South African ­commentator has uttered the dreaded “Z” word, a sentiment that has been considered too terrible to think for ordinary people and considered near-treasonous in the upper reaches of the ruling African National Congress.

“Hardly a decade from now, Zimbabwe will be our destination, our reality,” wrote Barney Mthombothi in his column in this weekend’s Financial Mail, South Africa’s equivalent of The Economist.

Mr Mthombothi, one of his country’s finest journalists, was commenting in the course of an analysis on the dire situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe where, he said, life had become “hell on earth”.

The tragedy is not simply that Mugabe has destroyed his own country, Mr Mthombothi went on to say. “He has exported the cancer. He’s poisoned the well. He’s contaminated the politics of the region, especially South Africa. Our politicians have learnt from the master’s knee – the buck-passing, blame everything on imperialists and apartheid;

the reckless and incendiary language; the refusal to see reason or deal with reality even as it stares you in the face.

“Our people are increasingly suspicious or even frightened by the actions of their own government. It can no longer be trusted to do what’s right by them.”

Mr Mthombothi’s apocalyptic warning – mirrored by other heavyweight analysts – comes as the global spotlight zeroes in on South Africa, with scarcely 40 more days to go before the country flings its doors open to humanity as it hosts football’s World Cup.

With the first match due on June 11,

a rise in racial tensions and ANC corruption together threaten to derail the feel-good national response that many hoped would be among the benefits of the tournament.

Allister Sparks, the veteran anti-apartheid warhorse journalist who espoused the ANC during its darkest days when banned by whites-only rulers, said the extent to which the movement has abandoned its own core principles is astonishing. The rot is spreading ever deeper into the very soul of the ANC, said Mr Sparks, winner of many international awards for his reporting, in his latest column in the daily Business Day.

The South African crisis, as the World Cup looms, is multi-dimensional. But Mr Sparks highlighted two core principles on which the ANC has gone backwards and which had carried it through all the long decades of its liberation struggle, through the tough constitutional negotiating process of the early 1990s under Nelson Mandela and into the dawn of the new South Africa – “the principle of non-racialism and the principle of clean, honest government that would deliver a better life for all.”

Mr Sparks added: “We have become a corrupt country. The whole body politic is riddled with it. We have reached a kind of corruption gridlock. When so many people in high places have the dirt on each other, no one dares blow a whistle. When the President of the country (Jacob Zuma) has managed to get off the hook on a major corruption case (charges relating to bribes associated with the country’s multi-billion dollar arms deal with Britain and other European Union countries), how can he crack down on corruption anywhere else in his administration?

“When he rewards the acting prosecuting chief who got him off the hook with a judgeship, how can he expect to have a clean civil service all the way down to municipal level?”

Mokotedi Mpshe last year dropped the National Prosecuting Authority’s multiple corruption charges against Mr Zuma under highly controversial circumstances and against the wishes of his own team of investigators. Mr Zuma this year appointed Mr Mpshe a high court judge for life.

MR Sparks is particularly outraged by the sleaze that pervades the ANC as a result of the party’s ownership of many companies to which it awards lucrative government contracts. For example, the state electricity company, Eskom, was last week given a £2.56billion loan to expand over-stretched power supplies. The ANC immediately made £68.5m thanks to the party’s shareholding in Hitachi Africa to whom Eskom’s chairman, Valli Moosa, a former ANC minister and present member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, conveniently awarded the expansion contract.

“So it’s OK for the ANC in its capacity as controller of the State to hand out hugely profitable contracts to the ANC in its capacity as a political party,” lamented Mr Sparks.

ANC leaders are now competing viciously among themselves for access to state resources, said William Gumede, author of Thabo Mbeki And The Battle For The Soul Of The ANC and currently a senior fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, in a lecture last week in Pretoria.

Many in the ANC had become part of the “bling culture” – getting rich quickly, using short cuts. “Unfortunately, while this new bling lifestyle has become the new standard for achievement, a sign that one has made it, no new factories are being built and mass poverty is increasing,” said Mr Gumede.

“What cannot be doubted any more is that our worse fears have come true: the ANC has lost its soul.”

While the corruption at heart of government is enough to make good men despair, the resurgence of racism, through new injections of race hatred malevolence from the toxic ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and the resurrection of white racist fringe extremism through the murder of

neo-Nazi leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, has ratcheted up the fear levels of moderate South Africans of all races.

Mr Malema, a badly educated 29-year-old, has achieved huge powers since becoming leader of the Youth League and Jacob Zuma’s most vociferous supporter during the latter’s 2006 trial for rape and his subsequent toppling in 2008 of former President Thabo Mbeki.

Mr Malema defended Mr Zuma against the rape allegations, on which he was found not guilty, by saying 68-year-old Mr Zuma had given his

31-year-old HIV-positive accuser a “nice time”. During Mr Malema’s anti-Mbeki campaign, he said: “We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.”

This month Mr Malema visited Zimbab­we and promised President Robert Mugabe that South Africa would emulate his policy of violent land seizures, which destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy. His support for Mr Mugabe came against a background of more than 3,000 white South African farmers killed in violent attacks since the ANC achieved power in 1994 in the country’s first all-race general election and the constant singing by Mr Malema at rallies of his theme song with lyrics, translated from the Zulu, that go, with many repetitions: “The cowards are scared. Shoot, shoot, shoot the Boer (white Afrikaner farmer). These dogs are raping. Shoot the Boer.”

Mr Zuma’s refusal to rein in his attack dog has been of growing concern in many sections of society.

“What Malema does to this country is tantamount to treason,” said Peter Bruce, editor of Business Day. “He is destructive and careless. He represents, in every conceivable way, what failure would look like for this country. If the ANC leadership does not get rid of him now, it will never have the opportunity again. And the damage he does will only get worse.”

Allister Sparks said he did not believe Mr Malema’s insistence on singing “Kill the Boer” had any direct role in Terre’Blanches’s murder. “But,” he added, “the fact the two coincided has inflamed racial passions. Thanks to Malema, the faded and farcical Terre’Blanche’s racist cause has found a new lease of life in his death.”

Terre’Blanche, leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), or Afrikaner Resistance Movement, had become a politically irrelevant extremist with miniscule support by the time he was bludgeoned to death in his bed this month by two of his black farmworkers. Their lawyers say their motive was unpaid wages. However, the police said the killers stripped and mutilated the 69-year-old Terre’Blanche in a way that suggested extreme racial hatred.

And Chris van Zyl, manager of safety and security with the conservative Transvaal Agricultural Union, said that in another recent murder of a white farmer the soles of his feet were stripped from him while he was still alive. Mr Van Zyl said 19 farmers had been killed this year, but the increasing violence of non-fatal attacks suggested the singing of “Kill the Boer” is fuelling the sentiment.

Mr Malema ratcheted up his reputation for extremism this month with an attack on a BBC journalist that had commentators comparing him to the late Ugandan military dictator Idi Amin. Mr Malema called BBC staff reporter Jonah Fisher a “bloody agent” and a “small boy” with a “white tendency” as he ordered Youth League security men to throw Mr Fisher out of a press conference on the Youth League chief’s visit to Zimbabwe.

Mr Malema mocked exiled supporters of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change for belonging to a “Mickey Mouse” organisation and insulting South Africa with statements issued from “air conditioned offices in Sandton,” Johannesburg’s most upmarket suburb.

As Mr Malema went on, Mr Fisher interjected: “You live in Sandton. So they’re not welcome in Sandton but you are?” Mr Malema, who has become a multi-millionaire in a short period of time, snapped and warned Mr Fisher: “Here you behave or else you jump.” Mr Fisher and others laughed. “Don’t laugh,” Mr Malema snarled. Mr Fisher rejoined that the situation had become a joke and that Mr Malema was talking rubbish.

It was then Mr Malema erupted and ordered the reporter’s ejection from the news conference. Collecting his recording equipment and walking out, Mr Fisher said: “I didn’t come here to be insulted.” Mr Malema bellowed after him: “Go out. Go out. Go out. You bloody agent!”

The opposition Democratic Alliance said the incident proved Mr Malema was “South Africa’s Mugabe”. Mpowele Swathe, shadow minister of rural development, said: “Malema’s hysterical, conspiracy theory-laden attack on the BBC is painfully reminiscent of the frequent claims by Mugabe he is the victim of ‘malicious propaganda by external forces’. His actions, in throwing the journalist out of the press conference, are no different to Mugabe’s censorship of the press in Zimbabwe, and his banning of outlets like the BBC from reporting there.”

Mr Malema has ignored a high court judge’s ruling that singing “Shoot the Boer” amounts to race-hatred speech. He has continued to sing the anthem, but the ANC issued a disciplinary hearing, scheduled for this week, following his attack on Mr Fisher.

Many fear that if Mr Malema is not expelled from the ANC and gets only a slap on the wrist, race relations will deteriorate further, leading Mondi Makhanya, editor of the wide circulation South African Sunday Times to warn: “There was a guy who lived in a country in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and into the 1940s.

“That particular person was allowed to rise because people didn’t take him seriously.”