Nelson Mandela was the African National Congress's first "volunteer in chief". The 27 years he spent incarcerated in prisons stand as an emblem to our human capacity for self-sacrifice in the pursuit of fairness and equality. Mandela's gift to the South African people was to allow the nation to become the "beacon of hope" that David Cameron described in his congratulatory message to the ANC on its 100th anniversary yesterday.
In the four short years between Mandela's release and the first all-race elections on 27 April 1994, brilliant and dedicated men and women laid the groundwork for a remarkable constitution – introduced in 1997 – that was to become the envy of the world.
But while South Africa wallowed in the glory of its moral authority, some members of the new government saw opportunities for personal enrichment. Arms were bought that were not needed to generate juicy defence contracts. Social housing was built but inequitably distributed. The policy of Black Economic Empowerment became a means for party bosses to feather their nests.
The ANC governing alliance – including trade unions, Communists and free-marketeers – is often described as ideologically diverse. That is a smokescreen for a rivalry and infighting over spoils that has made it dysfunctional.
A year has passed since President Jacob Zuma pledged the creation of five million jobs in 10 years. Barely a dent has been made in the 25 per cent unemployment rate. So the government is putting more and more people on welfare grants – three million to date. Education has been neglected. Inequality has widened, not narrowed. Years of official Aids denialism ravaged the health of millions of South Africans but even now there is scant progress on plans for a national health insurance system.
Most tragically, the post-apartheid constitution is itself now under attack from within. The party has subverted it to gag the media, interfere with the independence of the judiciary and usher in secrecy laws that would not be out of place in a dictatorship.
The ANC's credentials as one of the greatest liberation movements in modern history can keep it in power for years yet. The movement remains a mighty machine, able to crush any emerging opposition, even one that was credibly in touch with the aspirations of poor voters. But somewhere inside the machine are individuals who negotiated the transition. They were informed by Mandela's legacy of sacrifice for the common good. It is time for them to stand up.