International observers who took the AIDS policy fiasco, the ANC succession turmoil, the Scorpions saga, and the Eskom debacle more or less in their stride are finding the xenophobic violence to be one crisis too many.
First, the wave of devastation marked the definitive end of President Thabo Mbeki and Joel Netshitenzhe's once internationally persuasive "grand narrative", which had portrayed SA as a society moving relentlessly forward towards peace, modernity and development. Suddenly the smell of the apartheid years is in the air.
The London Times drew a chilling parallel last week under the headline "The Shame of Thabo Mbeki", when it claimed that "harrowing images of a still unidentified burning man recall the nadir of the apartheid era, when black-on-black violence terrorised the townships and suspected collaborators were set alight with petrol-filled tyres".
It has been two long decades since violent insurrection swept the country and Winnie Mandela declared that "together, hand in hand, with that stick of matches, with our necklace, we shall liberate this country". Today a new generation of young men, many of them not yet born when Winnie Mandela made her declaration, are marching once again to enforce purification by fire upon outsiders.
The intensity of the terror is made worse by the inaccessibility of the fierce moral logic that must lie behind the violence. Many ordinary citizens have become quiet but determined apologists for what outsiders see as inexplicable attacks upon refugees and economic migrants.
Second, observers inevitably fear this is the beginning of something wider and still more frightening. The ruling party's recent ructions, and the government's policy misjudgments, can be explained using the conventional languages of reason and interest. By contrast there is no satisfactory way of understanding what has caused the lethal mayhem that began in Gauteng.
Fears of an unfolding ethnic dimension to the violence have meanwhile been fuelled by reports of young men from predominantly Zulu-speaking hostels roaming the streets singing Umshini wam', seeking out people with dark complexions, and taunting Tsongas, Shangaans and foreigners alike. It is easy to imagine that the terrible victimisation of Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, if allowed to continue, may become a crusade against Shangaan, Shona or Venda people wherever they live as small minorities.
Third, there has been a devastating lack of political leadership. The London Times chose the obvious target when it observed that, "in the twilight of his power, Mr Mbeki has shown himself almost as detached from reality as Mr Mugabe". But it would appear that leaders of all kinds view the xenophobic rage as a natural force too powerful to be contained. Their reticence recalls the 1980s, when the exiled ANC leadership equivocated over responses to localised insurrections that were beyond the liberation movement's control.
As events have moved with startling speed and ferocity, the limitations of the South African Police Service as an instrument of public control have also been devastatingly confirmed. The police are widely and understandably distrusted by refugees. The gulf between them widened earlier this year after a heavy-handed police raid at Johannesburg's Central Methodist Church was widely perceived as a tacit endorsement of claims that the refugee community is a hotbed of criminality.
For the international media, the recent violence has provided an excuse to resurrect older models of SA's overall trajectory and ultimate destination. For the New York Times, SA is once again a powder keg of frustrated hopes and disappointed expectations. "The attacks on African migrants have increased political instability at a time of power shortages and disaffection over Mbeki's pro-business policies. Soaring food and fuel prices helped push tensions to breaking point."
The Financial Times, for its part, claims that violence against vulnerable foreigners can be used to diagnose more profound pathologies within a society. "In the 14 years since the dawn of black majority rule," the paper observes, "inhabitants of SA's townships have exhibited immense patience. The escalating violence against immigrants around Johannesburg should serve as a warning to SA's rulers that this patience has an end."
Jacob Zuma has impressed international analysts by recognising that investor-friendly policies must be accompanied by a strategy to ameliorate the suffering of the poor. He has yet to explain how this will be done in practice. Until he makes some attempt to do so, confidence in SA's future will remain shaken. In its most gloomy analysis of the future of SA in many years, the Financial Times has observed that "scenes so reminiscent of township violence in the 1980s could yet see South Africans turning on one another".