What do the Nazi invasion of the Rhineland, the fate of Ahmed Timol, and African National Congress support for corruption have in common? They reveal the consequences of failing to nip evil in the bud when it first occurs.
When Adolf Hitler sent three battalions into the Rhineland in March 1936 in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations he knew very well that the massively superior French army could have crushed them. That is why the German troops had orders to withdraw at the first sign of resistance to their entry into this demilitarised zone separating France and Germany.
But neither the French nor their British allies lifted a finger to stop Hitler. Had they forced him to retreat, it would almost certainly have been the end of him, as he later admitted. Instead, the success of his gamble established his psychological superiority over the caution of his generals. As for the British and French, they lost their one real opportunity to nip Nazi military ambitions in the bud. After that it was appeasement all the way until the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War.
Here in South Africa, the new inquest currently under way into the death of Ahmed Timol while being interrogated on the notorious ninth floor of the John Vorster Square police station in 1971 reminds us of another policy of appeasement. This was towards erosions of the rule of law and it was followed by the United Party (UP) when it was the official opposition.
When the Public Safety Act was put through Parliament in 1953 to break the defiance campaign launched by the ANC the previous year, the UP supported it. It did so despite the fact that it gave the government virtual carte blanche to suspend laws and rule by decree in the form of emergency regulations. The UP also ignored warnings by leaders of the Torch Commando and the Labour Party that emergency regulations could be used to detain people without trial.
Although nearly all known deaths in detention occurred in terms of other laws, the UP's strategy of appeasement towards the National Party government's steady erosion of the rule of law helped to encourage that process. Timol was one of at least 63 people thought to have died in detention under security legislation.
Nearly 20 years ago the ANC's parliamentary caucus failed to grasp the opportunity to nip corruption in the bud when it torpedoed the investigation by its own standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) into the arms deal struck at the tail-end of the Mandela government. Since then, caucus and party headquarters at Luthuli House alike have supported both the Mbeki and the Zuma governments in blocking investigations into the arms deal.
Corruption in the meantime has widened and deepened. Agencies that should investigate and prosecute it have been abolished or captured, all with the support of the ANC. The party in fact gave the president, ministers, senior officials, bosses of state-owned enterprises, and their friends a licence to loot and plunder.
Even though around two dozen ANC MPs supported last week's no-confidence motion against President Zuma, the fact that there were not enough rebels to overthrow him even in a secret ballot is likely to be interpreted as a renewal of that licence.
There is of course a vast difference between launching invasions, detaining people without trial, and condoning corruption. But in each case something that was obviously both evil and dangerous was condoned when it should have been opposed. Those few voices who warned at the time of dire consequences were mocked or ignored. Opportunities to nip evil in the bud slipped past until it was too late.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires - Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, were published earlier this year by Jonathan Ball.