AS THE nation lurches from set piece to set piece in the melodrama that is the road to Mangaung, we may wonder: how did we get here? And you may ask yourself, is this the place where I live?

If your reply is that it is a land gone down the rabbit hole, you may be right, but for the rest of us, it seems reasonable to want to understand the origins and character of our predicaments: what has gone wrong with the South African project? If ours is a democracy, why did we bother? Have we fallen through the centre of the earth and come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards?

For sure, South Africa has many predicaments. Our economy is in a worse funk than it should be. We are caught in a loop of violence and abuse. Our infrastructure and institutions are decaying and our children are illiterate and innumerate. Life under African National Congress (ANC) rule is worse for most citizens, not better.

Well, that is Africa for you, some might say. African governance is venal, they would suggest, alluding to some sort of consensual arrangement among types. But that is just atavistic nonsense. As a tool for finding solutions to our predicaments, it is useless. There has to be a better way.

It may not have been the intention of historiographers Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren to present a better way with their book, The Devil in the Detail: How the Arms Deal Changed Everything (Jonathan Ball), but they do show how the machinations in a parallel universe have come to shape South African society, and it is not the pat racist drivel the hand-wringing classes seem to prefer.

Much has been said and written about the R70bn (and growing) Strategic Defence Procurement Package (the arms deal), but there has been very little about the circumstances that made it possible and the inevitability of the dropping of corruption, fraud and racketeering charges against President Jacob Zuma.

The Devil in the Detail presents the arms deal, in the first instance, as a tale of victory by hawks over doves. That, it asserts, is despite the best efforts of South Africa's ANC-dominated Parliament, the chapter nine institutions and civil society entities to maintain civilian oversight of the military and so contain arms procurement within the bounds of what is reasonable and necessary.

The authors demonstrate how the cajoling and subterfuge and bullying that resulted in a blank cheque being handed to the militarists were not ANC-specific nor a race-based African thing. They show how a parallel and Machiavellian culture of manipulation, with its roots as much in the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe as in the apartheid regime's South African Defence Force, prevail in a constitutional democracy. They show how the custom of secrecy and a corrupt culture of practice under apartheid transitioned seamlessly into the new South Africa.

That is for openers. What follows is a systematic record of transactions that have been perverted without exception by arms manufacturers, generals, fixers and politicians at hugely inflated costs to the fiscus for personal gain at an unprecedented degree and scale of villainy for South Africa. That, perhaps, is the realisation that stripped off the veneer of newly acquired, post-apartheid urbanity among the vested and investing classes and which now manifests in cynicism, distrust and a venality of its own.

What dawns is the realisation that almost everything that has gone wrong with the government in South Africa can in some way be tied to the culture and practice that is manifest in the arms deal.

The authors spell out how the series of transactions that constitute the arms deal has put South Africa in the economic dilemma it now faces. The book includes an overview, in illustration by graphic artist Mia Allers, how the country could have benefited had the doves and rule of law prevailed. It is bitter reading: the state spent R1 on academic bursaries for every R10 spent in the arms deal; it spent R1 on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment for every R7 spent in the arms deal, and so on. The famously vaunted R110bn in industrial offsets translated to, um, an unknown sum, as not supplied by the Department of Trade and Industry. Of the promised 65000 jobs to have been created by the arms deal, just 26000 materialised.

Consider, now that books are an issue in Limpopo, that R70bn could have built all the school libraries needed, stocked them and employed librarians for each library for 21 years.

Consider, now that land reform is officially regarded as an abject failure, that R70bn would have achieved most of the government's land-reform objectives articulated in 1994.

Consider, now that land-reform failures and uncertainty over property rights threaten food security, that R70bn could, for 11 years, have fed the 12% of South Africa's children who suffer chronic hunger. It goes on.

The point is that instead of leading Africa and other emerging economies into an era of prosperity, the arms deal has relegated South Africa to an also-ran African economy that will be increasingly dependent on an economically indisposed first world for largesse. The purpose of the book, as Holden puts it, goes beyond recording the facts in contextualised order, and past establishing culpability, but is meant to enumerate the opportunity costs of the deal.

In the third instance, the book elucidates the consequence of miscreant behaviour as a self-perpetuating network of patronage and force. It explains how South Africans find themselves in a surreal world, where neither villainy nor buffoonery disqualifies a political candidate for representative office. It also explains why, once in office, these politicians and backroom puppeteers are prepared to profane everything South Africans hold sacred under the constitution.

In that way, the arms deal has weakened South Africa to the point of catastrophe, and The Devil in the Detail records precisely how the citizens of this country have failed to preserve our freedom and prosperity, how a passive and naive electorate has permitted a gang of hooligans to perpetrate a series of events that entrenched a dirigiste state dictated by tsotsis in zoot suits. In the postscript, Van Vuuren writes that the tsotsis (my word) "have placed a significant obstacle in the way of South Africa's progress towards a more just, equal society in which elite networks no longer enjoy a monopoly over money and state power".

So what must we do?

The first is to acknowledge there has been a huge and criminal cover-up, even as we may be certain the race card will be played, again. Next, the authors provide a list of policy changes that only the government can make to prevent a repeat performance, but they argue that to see them effected, civil society must work relentlessly to convince South Africa's political class to pry open the arms deal's secrets.

That would be no simple task, since the crimes committed in pursuit of the arms deal are hidden under layers of other crimes. But this is indeed where we live. If we don't do it and permit the tsotsis to continue to hold and manipulate power, South Africans can forget about a better life for all. There is a gang of thieves in our midst and they won't stop stealing until we have stopped them, thrown them out and thrown them into jail. We know who they are.