The leader of the rainbow nation wanted to set a new style of leadership, free from the greed and corruption for which the apartheid National Party rule was renown. But no sooner had his African National Congress (ANC) come into power, the cracks in the system begin to show.
The new dispensation offered opportunities for the black elites ensconced with power, which they seized with alacrity. One of the first acts of the new parliament was to vote for huge increases in the salaries and allowances of ministers, members of parliament and the president. Ministers' monthly salaries were raised to a level which was three times more than what the average worker earned in a year.
South Africa faced no international threat of any kind. Indeed, some ANC politicians argued that there was no need for a navy at all, only a national coast guard equipped to protect fisheries from foreign trawlers; as for the air force, they suggested that its existing fleet of jet fighters was adequate to deal with any foreseeable circumstances. But key ministers embarked on a massive arms procurement programme - submarines, frigates and fighter jets. The $5 billion spending spree designed as such provided many opportunities for kickbacks to greedy officials.
ANC leaders treated the public sector, in effect, as a spoils system. They set up a secret network of four companies, called the Chancellor House Group, to acquire contracts in order to channel funds back to the party. The objective was to ensure that the ANC elite had the means to entrench themselves in power forever or, as party leader Jacob Zuma put it memorably, "until Jesus comes back".
The ANC administration was riddled not just with corruption but also with rank incompetence. Because of a failure by government ministers to plan ahead, South Africa was hit by an energy crisis in 2008 that caused widespread economic disruption. Advances that the government made in providing housing, piped water and electricity to poor communities were soon over shadowed by failing education, health and other public services.
This is a book about South Africa, but the parallels to our daily headlines are frightening.