IN the early 1970s Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder starred in a film entitled ‘Start the revolution without me’. This sentiment must have entered the local political equation because somewhere along the line we missed the South African revolution. Perhaps we were on holiday, or blinking. Surely it must exist – influential politicians of a certain persuasion are increasingly talking about the counter-revolutionary forces bent on destroying it.

There was, of course, no revolution. Apartheid was defeated by its own economic contradictions, international pressure, and a strong internal civil rights movement to which hundreds of thousands of South Africans from all walks of life and all communities contributed in different ways. There was no liberation war, just low-level insurgency. Nor was there a triumphal revolutionary vanguard that seized power.

Instead there was a great deal of common sense and a negotiated settlement that established the foundations of a modern democratic society: a strong, liberal Constitution and bill of rights; statutory watchdog institutions like the Human Rights Commission; the rule of law; and an independent judiciary. In the context of South African history this was in itself truly radical.

The revolution is myth, not history, part of the process of re-inventing South Africa’s past to justify the rhetoric of the ANC. The counter-revolutionary is an extraordinarily useful figure, an object of hate for the rabble-rousing speaker and masses of people with a grievance. The concept of counter-revolution empties the mind of any responsibility to suggest constructive ways to deal with national ills. These are wrapped up neatly in one easy-to-understand package.

Instead, it encourages the politics of the short cut. Anything is justified because theoretically all that stands in the way of the popular agenda are those evil counter-revolutionaries. The football team is underperforming: nationalise it. Land reform is failing because of bureaucratic incompetence: expropriate property. The revered leader is charged with a criminal offence: threaten blood on the streets. A dodgy, but politically acceptable judge is alleged to have exerted undue influence: smear the accusers. And the politically-appointed head of police is suspected of dealings with criminals: suspend and investigate the chief prosecutor.

The word revolution conjures up images of left wingers in the communist tradition. But there is a more appropriate word: fascist. The cult of the leader, and the idea of a man elevated so far above the common herd that he is immune from the authority of the courts now enjoys widespread support. Around him are adoring supporters who would apparently kill for his cause, whatever that might be. Under these conditions democracy is reduced to sloganeering, its freedoms easily hijacked to acquire unchecked, indefinite power.

Editor of the Mail & Guardian, Ferial Haffejee, calls this situation the greatest challenge to South Africa since the end of apartheid. Other commentators have denied that the country is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. They are all correct in their way. The danger to the South African state is insidious; particularly acute as it involves the creation of a vacuum of civic morality. Nothing is sacrosanct if it stands in the way of a self-styled vanguard whose leaders lack nothing by way of large cars, bodyguards, rhetorical slogans and political ambition.

At risk are the real gains established at the dawn of democracy, the freedoms never before enjoyed by any South African. In the face of the demagogue and the threatening crowd they appear remarkably fragile. Just as the removal of apartheid required the courage of ordinary people, so the defence of civil rights will need even more effort. While South Africa is a more robust and complex society than Zimbabwe, an illustration of the consequences of constitutional meltdown are plain for all to see. Kader Asmal’s declaration could not put it better: ‘this significant moment in our history requires that all of us become activists in the service of our Constitution’.

This article was first published in The Witness on 10 July 2008 and entitled ‘Stoking the myth of revolution’.