There is always a moment when a government has finally lost its way and it is apparent for all to see. That point was a week ago with the flabbergasting decision to charge the detained Marikana miners with murder, rubbing salt into the wounds of the massacre and further damaging South Africa's international standing.
It suggests that the National Prosecuting Authority remains in a serious state of disrepair. That the decision was swiftly overturned is mitigation of the most modest kind.
Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe called quickly for an explanation, showing that he, at least, is streetwise enough to know what a crass, deviant decision it was and how it would play into the hands of the populists fanning the flames.
But there is nothing to displace the overriding sense of a government in chaos – in office, but not in power.
When a government falls into such a state of discombobulation, having lost its political moorings, it does great injustice to the decent and talented ministers and officials who soldier on. It is tempting, for their sake, to say "let them carry on". But in the end they, too, will be sunk by the absence of leadership.
A political crisis such as Marikana will test a leader to his or her marrow. There is scant evidence that Jacob Zuma has what it takes. From his faltering TV appearance the day after the massacre to his failure to take personal charge of the subsequent mediation efforts (mediation being, according to legend, his greatest attribute as a professional politician), Zuma has failed to rise to the occasion.
If anything good is to come of Marikana, it must be that the ANC will draw from its deep pool of talent to replace a failing leadership.
Beyond the government and the ANC, reactions to the Marikana crisis have been revealingly predictable. Just as unsurprising is the response of the old establishment. Take Business Day, in which right-wing columnist David Gleason and free-market economist Mike Schussler have advanced the inherently offensive argument that the Marikana miners are neither poor nor badly paid.
Sadly, they speak not just for an outdated, discredited school of economic theory, but for a large body of South Africa's wealthy elite, who will not concede wealth or influence in the interest of socioeconomic stability, however much they fear its absence.
This society can no longer survive the socioeconomic pressures placed on it. To maintain current levels of relative poverty and vast inequality is unsustainable. Marikana was proof of this. As such, it was entirely predictable – Moeletsi Mbeki, for one, predicted it long ago.
The objective factors were conspicuous: the growing socioeconomic distress and rising anger, the fomenting populism, the fractures in union unity, the culture of violence and intolerance and the ineptitude of the police.
Many commentators are happy to see ANC power decline. They fail to see that South Africa's precarious social contract depends – or has until now – almost entirely on the viability of the ANC-led alliance, as Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes argued in these pages last week.
A competitive democracy would not benefit from the ANC's disintegration, unless it was being tested by a cogent, competent opposition that was roused to raise its game.
What happens next will depend on how progressive people and organisations respond to the crisis – and to conservative analyses of its causes and solutions.
In this respect, there is cause for optimism. The worst human rights abuses galvanise human rights organisations, which in recent years have lost their sense of purpose and traditional funding sources.
Such groups will have to focus their new-found sense of purpose against the state. But, armed with a keen sense of the real political economy of South Africa, they must find progressive allies in the ANC and government who, for their part, must offer open doors and open minds.
Where Thabo Mbeki, to his cost, saw only adversarial intent and failed to see the opportunity for constructive, progressive alliances, so a new, moderate ANC leadership must work with progressive civil society and not against it.
This is a point that, to his credit, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has long taken on board.
The divisions that were so carefully manicured and managed through the mirage of the Mandela years are now painfully brought to the surface. First Julius Malema, then The Spear, now Marikana.
It has been a watershed year for modern South Africa, a year that has ripped open the country's political, cultural, ideological and socioeconomic fault lines like no other. One hopes that only Mangaung lies ahead.
Cyril Ramaphosa is right when he argues that how South Africa responds will define it for the next generation – and that response must be articulated at Mangaung. Ramaphosa and other capable, moderate and progressive ANC leaders must now assume their political responsibilities before it is too late.