What will happen when the ANC and its trade union allies are no longer unquestioningly accepted as the sole legitimate representatives of poor?
When the store of liberation credit has been drawn down so far that it can no longer stand surety for "a better life" that arrives too incrementally and too unequally?
These are questions that we have been far too glib in the answering.
The killings at Marikana and their political aftermath may at last force us to confront the real consequences of declining alliance credibility.
It has happened to almost all the parties of uhuru – and it will happen here. Recent elections have begun to see the erosion of the ruling party's super-majority, and the near-daily uprisings we domesticate under the rubric of "service delivery protest" send a message that electoral choices are not yet capable of registering.
In the dust of the platinum belt we now have a stark illustration of how difficult, and how dangerous, this transition will be.
Former president Thabo Mbeki used to tell business people at fundraising events that they should donate to the ANC because "people trust us, we fought for them … they will be patient". His message was that the party would use its political capital to keep on board with a programme of gradual amelioration those for whom change remained frustratingly slow. No one else would be able to persuade them that a free-market system and fiscal stability would provide a sustainable basis for employment growth, an improved social wage and equitable black participation in the economy.
This approach worked for some time. What happened next depends on the ideological framework of the teller. Many on the left feel the ANC sold out its supporters to rapacious markets and built a framework that could only deepen poverty – entrenching white capital and a few black economic empowerment cronies. In this account, corruption and state failure are consequences of "neoliberalism", not aberrations from the orderly path of growth.
A more centrist view, one echoed by the national planning commission, is that the flood of cash released after 2003 – when the toughest strictures of the growth, employment and redistribution plan were loosened and social and infrastructure spending began to grow rapidly – too often ran into the dry sand of corruption, mismanagement and "capacity" issues.
A more capable state would speed up the pace at which the lives of South Africans are improving, both through service delivery and the building of human and physical capital. It might even do so fast enough to forestall major unrest and continue delivering votes.
Of course, further to the right there is a clear belief that there is still far too much state – and far too much ruling party – in the ANC's plans, and it is this excess that naturally brings corruption and inefficiency.
Of course, these are rough sketches, but it is worth drawing their broad outlines because they all identify one central crisis: the failure of the social contract that the ANC and the unions, with the acquiescence or support of business, has for nearly 20 years used to contain South Africa's immense potential for conflict.
The taxes collected from a small but comparatively well-off set of income earners and from companies are not enough to sustain welfare recipients, build infrastructure and run a complex modern state while also funding the lifestyles of tenderpreneurs, government officials and the ruling party.
Widening inequality, even where aggregate poverty levels are falling, brings with it what Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of labour federation Cosatu, calls a "social distance" between the tripartite alliance and its constituents. Conspicuously well-off politicians and union officials find it hard to sell a message of patience from inside a BMW, or a police Nyala.
Surely then, there is cause for optimism in the fraying of ANC hegemony? Were its power truly threatened at the ballot box, it would have to become more accountable, after all.
In this sunny narrative, opposition parties, led perhaps by an increasingly post-racial Democratic Alliance, take a bigger share of the national vote in 2014 and maybe win another province. By 2016 they control two more large metros and in the 2019 national elections the ANC share of the vote falls below 50%.
The ANC remains powerful, but needs as much as anyone else the constitutional defences the party's ruling clique say are being abused by "antimajoritarian" liberals.
A second scenario, call it the Russian road, sees elections remaining formally free but the alliance drifting into soft authoritarianism, using legislation and its security apparatus to contain dissent. A corrupt elite may continue to prosper under these circumstances, but the poor remain poor and the price of stability is the withering of democracy.
Marikana points us down a less predictable path.
When the alliance fails, the alternative may not be Lindiwe Mazibuko, or Terror Lekota. It may not be the savvy activism of the Treatment Action Campaign, or the constitutional socialism of the far left.
Instead, it may be the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. Or Julius Malema. Or more inchoate forces, which an emergent demagogy may be able to stoke but ultimately not control.
If that happens, as we saw at Marikana, the result will not be the clash of liberal constitutionalists and ANC reactionaries, but a massively asymmetrical confrontation between the security state and an angry populace.
We may then long for the days when, to borrow from the deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Jeremy Cronin, the ANC confidently fostered a progressive hegemony.
Those days will not return, but there are voices within the alliance that are trying to ensure it is still able move the country forward.
Vavi is perhaps most acutely aware of the scale of the problem, and when he rails against political hyenas, warns against the Protection of State Information Bill, or helps motivate the creation of a non-governmental organisation like Corruption Watch, he is trying to forge a new left politics from within Cosatu. He has to face down immense internal resistance, however.
Cronin is the main exponent of the thinking in the SACP and ANC, which subsumes the entire public sphere into a new kind of total state. He was the first to attack Vavi's engagement with civil society as a toenadering [rapprochement] with "right-wing" liberals, "lurking behind the fig-leave [sic] of "civil society".
At a recent colloquium, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe was asked how the ANC could better use the energy of grassroots activists to ensure that those who have a voice also have a vote. He was dismissive. "We listen, they are not voiceless."
If this is how the leading progressive thinkers in the alliance are responding to the deepest crisis in its post-liberation history, then it is difficult to hold out much hope.
They may not realise it, but they are providing the intellectual rationale for the hard men in the security agencies who are happy to see the state become a machine for protecting the elite, whether by subverting the National Prosecuting Authority, or by issuing policemen with R5 rifles and live rounds.
The result will not be a failed state, but it will be an awful one unless we can summon the political imagination to create a credible representative politics after the ANC. For unions, for civil society and opposition parties, that means now.