ONE by one they gradually disappear from national political life. Ahmed Mohamed ‘Uncle Kathy’ Kathrada died on 28 March leaving behind just two fellow Rivonia trialists from 1964, Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg. And with each death South Africans experience a sense of loss and a wave of nostalgia that reflects its current state of national crisis and acute anxiety.

This was evident at Kathrada’s funeral, attended by the nation’s great and good, which was turned into a political event. Controversial, perhaps, but justified by the fact that Kathrada was a lifelong politician whose involvement had started at the age of twelve. Recently he was one of many ANC veterans who advised Jacob Zuma to step down from the presidency as a result of his contempt for the Constitution and connivance with state capture. His written advice to Zuma, a voice from the grave, was read to a standing ovation at the funeral by none other than former president Kgalema Motlanthe. Zuma had been told he was not to speak at the funeral, a highly significant moment of rejection for the ANC and the nation.

It is a measure of the powerful symbolism of the Rivonia Trial and the long incarceration of ANC leaders (except Goldberg) on Robben Island that the death at a great age of a relatively obscure activist should evoke such deep emotion. In part this is a further chapter in the long goodbye to Nelson Mandela. But it is also recognition of the selflessness and collective commitment of the stalwarts of the 1950s who led the fight against the tyranny of apartheid and kept alive the hope of a just and non-racial South Africa. It was a remarkable triumph of fortitude over despair; a keeping of faith in human decency.

But human decency hardly defines national political life today. The ANC converted itself from liberation movement to factionalised, corrupt business enterprise with barely a nod towards party politics or political ideology. The president potentially faces hundreds of charges of corruption and racketeering and is the puppet of unscrupulous businessmen poised to seize significant parts of the economy. Vast swathes of the State have been captured by these unsavoury elements who threaten the very survival of South African democracy. The country is increasingly run by gangsters.

No wonder people from all sections of society turned out to mourn Kathrada, a man of principle and integrity and above all a constitutionalist. He, other Rivonia trialists (like Mandela and Walter Sisulu) and a cast of characters from the anti-apartheid struggle such as Desmond Tutu and George Bizos form a substantial pantheon of heroic virtue. This is a real source of national pride. But as perceptive commentators pointed out, by the time Mandela died the principles and values for which he stood had long since disappeared from public life. In a sense Mandela died two deaths. The same might be said of Kathrada; first the ideas – then the person.

While South Africans feel acutely the loss of stalwart individuals, and demonstrably so, there is the hard question whether the ideals and aspirations they promoted ever found real purchase in national life. The euphoria of the mid-1990s was soon tainted by crooks and opportunists, the poisonous influence of ANC exile culture, and mistakes by Mandela’s government such as the scrapping of the Reconstruction and Development Programme and acceptance of the arms deal. Then there followed Thabo Mbeki’s two administrations characterised by racial nationalism (which provided opportunity for many of today’s divisive politicians), HIV/AIDS denialism, and connivance with Mugabe’s atrocities north of the border.

South Africans mourn values that have disastrously shallow roots in public life. Are they deluded about the past, so relieved to see an end to the human rights crime that was apartheid that they remember an illusion? There is no shortage of gilded individuals, but no golden era to recall other than the hangovers after several sporting successes in the mid-1990s. Indeed, South Africans have venerated the superficial aspects of the post-apartheid era and tended to ignore the warnings of its deeper thinkers about the fundamental changes required to make sure more people share the liberation dividend. South Africans ignore their heroes; then honour and mourn them in death. Now there is a desperate struggle to preserve the liberal democracy that succeeded apartheid.

Yet politics constantly throws up the unexpected. As Kathrada was dying in hospital, finance minister Pravin Gordhan was abruptly recalled from London where he was promoting investment in South Africa. It was correctly predicted that this was a prelude to his dismissal for ‘obstructing’ Zuma’s ‘radical economic transformation plans’; in other words, state capture by the Guptas through ‘dastardly deeds done in the darkness of the night’ as Kathrada’s wife Barbara Hogan put it. But this has turned into an unexpected crisis for Zuma, especially after he arbitrarily cancelled Kathrada’s memorial service.

It would be comforting and encouraging to think that Kathrada’s demise might have reminded enough ANC politicians with consciences that the Zuma government is turning South Africa into a mafia state. The values of the ANC’s stalwarts have everything to offer to what is now openly being called South Africa’s second liberation struggle.