THE historian Eric Hobsbawm called the 1900s the ‘short’ twentieth century. It began, he argues, with the start of the Great War in 1914 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990; 76 years of unparalleled world tension interspersed by periods of extreme conflict with death on a grand scale. Another of the events that brought the century to an effective conclusion was of course the demise of apartheid.

The decade of the 1990s was understandably a time of great euphoria in South Africa: it started with the release of Madiba and the unbanning of liberation organisations and ended with a second free and fair general election. In between there had been times when it seemed that a political settlement was impossible, not least because of continuing state-orchestrated violence. But it all apparently came right in 1994 and Desmond Tutu was able to proclaim to the world the birth of the rainbow nation. The Archbishop Emeritus is one of the most admirable people on earth, but sadly on this occasion his judgement was over-optimistic as he implicitly admits in his recent Steve Biko Lecture.

A strong and principled civil rights movement fell apart in South Africa in the 1990s. Ludicrous statements were made by people with impeccable democratic credentials: for instance, that independent organisations were no longer needed because the ANC was back in business. In many circles any suggestion that monitoring and advocacy bodies should not be absorbed into the ANC or wound up altogether was regarded as tantamount to treason towards the emergent new democracy. Such ill-judged action and opinion was worthy of a one-party state and this is exactly where it came from, courtesy of the ANC’s apprenticeship to the Soviet empire.

The democratic Left basked in blissful innocence seduced by the image of the rainbow nation. Was this a matter of forgetfulness in the heat of the moment, after the exhaustion of the struggle years and the desire for a normal life? Or was it another form of treason, a betrayal of the search for genuine democracy? In his reflections on the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel describes how walls that appeared to be made of solid granite turned out ultimately to be no more than a film set created out of propped-up cardboard. Apartheid was like that, too: maybe the surprise took people off guard.

The basic problem was partly obscured in the 1990s, but has become all too evident in the new century. The ANC regards itself not simply as a political party seeking periodic endorsement at elections for custodianship of the nation’s well-being; but a liberation movement entitled to penetrate every corner of national life. Current attempts to alter the local government structure of Cape Town after an electoral defeat are a good example. The language and practice of the tripartite alliance with its cadres deployed into key positions in typical vanguardist fashion is chillingly reminiscent of the totalitarianism of certain phases of the mid-twentieth century. As Hermann Giliomee has noted, the exile wing of the ANC, virtually unchallenged, expropriated the moral capital of what had been a broad-based struggle. We now live with the consequences.

So while self-indulgent celebrations continued in the 1990s, at the end of the national rainbow, unnoticed and unpoliced by civil society, various unscrupulous opportunists were industriously digging for a pot of gold. When they found it they used it for a variety of purposes dressed up in jargon like transformation and Africanisation. The evidence of their efforts is seen all around us over ten years later in the direct and indirect subversion of the institutions that support a democratic state.

As Richard Steyn pointed out in a recent Witness review article, South Africa is a country blessed with many democratic institutions that support racially-defined majority rule. This is not to be confused with true democracy. Protecting us from a renewal of the authoritarianism that has plagued South African history are bodies that support and protect the Constitution through the separation of powers. The key bodies are named after chapter nine of the Constitution: the Public Protector, Human Rights Commission, Electoral Commission, Auditor-General and the Independent Broadcasting Authority, for example. As the Constitution boldly proclaims, ‘these institutions are independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law … they must be impartial and must exercise their powers and perform their functions without fear, favour or prejudice’. Crucially, ‘no organ of the state may interfere with the functioning of these institutions’.

Yet several of them have been compromised. What is more, the government has also tried to nibble away at the independence of the judiciary, seeking to take administrative functions of the courts out of the hands of judges. Some of the latter have made unfortunate remarks and behaved in ways that calls into question their independence. Academic freedom in some of our universities is under severe strain.

If eventually South Africa travels any distance along the ill-fated path of Zimbabwe, it will be because of subversion of the Constitution in the widest sense. It would also be the ultimate triumph of the apartheid security state. First, tie down and wear out your fiercest critics in civil society. Then, second, negotiate a settlement with politicians whose main objective is power and materialism, and whose nationalist view discounts individual liberty. After a decent interval you might end up with something reminiscent of the past. No wonder reactionaries have adapted so well.

And the brilliance of the national rainbow? In more ways than one those unscrupulous opportunists are busy reducing it to black and white.

This article was first published in The Witness on 17 October 2006 and entitled ‘The true colours of the rainbow nation’