IS recent South African history a saga of lost opportunities? Historians tend not to ask the perfectly natural question: what might have been? Perhaps it calls for too much speculation, but it is worth considering.

Take World War Two. It was fought against the evil of fascism, but for many involved it was also a struggle for a better world. Many South Africans returned from it energised by the idea of a common society. But they lacked a charismatic leader able to spark wider support and create a workable coalition among trade unionists, Torch Commando members and reformists. This window of opportunity was closed down by the National Party victory in 1948 and the ascendancy of men with granite, rather than grey matter, in their brains.

Just thirty years later their successors were desperately trying to create the very society that could have been achieved after the war around urbanisation and a growing black middle class exercising real political rights. By the late eighties, the National Party had adopted a modernised version of what post-war planners had envisaged for the fifties.

Move on to the early nineties and forget all the struggle propaganda about people’s wars and revolution, never mind ridiculous songs about machine guns. Apartheid collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions and inadequacies. The people of stature then running the ANC were sophisticated and highly astute. They knew that the international climate and South Africa’s own circumstances made a negotiated settlement the only realistic outcome. No one would benefit in the long run from any alternative, least of all the ANC.

But this in turn generated misplaced euphoria. A proud and effective civil rights structure sold out to the ANC, virtually apologising for its past existence. There was little understanding of the fact that a liberal Constitution is only as good as the institutions and values that protect it. This was due in part to struggle exhaustion, innocence, and careerists currying favour with the newly powerful.

Hand-wringing apologies overcame common sense. One of the consequences was the employment equity policy that cost the country so much in terms of potential service delivery. Many South Africans now scattered around the world are skilled people who would have risen to the challenge of a social democracy delivering infrastructure to the deprived. But it was made clear to them that ability and application were not the priority. So the poor continue to suffer, occasionally burning a building or train or two to vent their understandable frustration with the disappointing fruits of democracy.

Failure to defend robustly the institutions of a fragile new democracy, and to retain and use national assets to rectify the political follies of the past, are two of the factors that bring us to the present situation. The shrewd ANC realists are dwindling in number; and the party is degenerating, falling into the hands of criminals, populists and opportunists. It is a classic situation that played itself out in post-war Europe where the Yugoslav Communist dissident Milovan Djilas was one of the first to identify the replacement of ideological integrity by the agendas of unscrupulous time servers.

It’s happening here, too. We live in increasingly dangerous times. The debate about two centres of power is a colossal fraud. There is only one centre of power. It is called the government and it consists of a range of institutions and people, checks and balances. The idea that Luthuli House alone can determine the country’s future contains the seeds of tyranny.

Since the Polokwane conference, the tripartite alliance has begun to display an ugly new face. So far it has targeted the judicial system, suggesting that its independence could be subject to political control. One or two individuals have threatened blood on the streets if legal outcomes do not suit their agenda. This is not simply disrespect for the Constitution; it is tantamount to treason. A personality cult of untouchability is beginning to develop around Jacob Zuma, the man for all seasons. One of the major problems of post-liberation South Africa has been a tendency to confuse patriotism with loyalty to the ANC. Is this now to be taken a step further by prescribed deference to the ordinary man from Nkandla?

In the mid-fifties, when a party with contempt for democracy attacked the constitutional basis of the state, women of South Africa founded a protest movement, the Defence of the Constitution League, better known as the Black Sash. Who in civil society will monitor and guard the Bill of Rights fifty years later? Or is this another tragic, wasted moment in South Africa’s history?

This article was first published in The Witness on 12 February 2008 and entitled ‘Seeds of tyranny’.