Binge-watching a top-rated TV series is a sure-fire way to escape the depressing reality of SA’s winter of discontent.

But beyond escapism, one current series offers compelling insight into what happens to a society where trust is destroyed and truth is completely corrupted.

Chernobyl is the masterful HBO-Sky series depicting the nuclear disaster at the eponymous Ukrainian town. On that catastrophe, and offered as a quote right at the end of the series, is Mikhail Gorbachev’s observation that the “nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later”.

Gorbachev emerges semi-heroic from the series. But its real hero is Soviet scientist Valery Legasov. Just before killing himself, he narrates: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later the debt gets paid.”

Beyond the human drama and the environmental cataclysm, Chernobyl is a timely reminder for societies everywhere of what happens when a bodyguard of lies encases a country and its institutions. It’s hard to recover: either they collapse as the Soviet Union did in 1991, or they stagger on in mediocre fashion.

If he was completely candid with the country, he would have said that whatever his hopes for restoration of growth and the recovery of hope embedded in his “New Dawn”, he is completely boxed in by the traitorous Iago at his side, Ace Magashule.

(Actually, the Shakespearean villain from Othello was described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as possessing “motiveless malignancy”. Like the villains in Chernobyl, he lied because he could. But Ace and his fellow hatchet-wielder, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, have motives aplenty.)

Magashule was elected to his post by fewer than 5,000 South Africans. Ramaphosa enjoys a mandate from 10-million citizens. But when it comes to who appoints the committee chairs of parliament, polices the policy choices of the government and denudes the president’s speeches of real content, you could be forgiven for assuming the tiny minority overrides the democratic majority.

That in turn is the direct and dangerous consequence of the Soviet idea that the ruling party is the “vanguard of the people” and its dirtiest acts are cleansed by its immutable understanding of the needs of the masses.

“In office but not in power” was Norman Lamont’s dismissal of hapless British prime minister John Major. Seems a good fit for Cyril right now unless he starts to act before the sharks circling in the treacherous and rancid waters of the ANC move in for the kill.

Aside from an unwillingness to either politically wound or kill, Ramaphosa’s travails stem from the extraordinary fact that he declined to dip into his estimated net worth of R6.4bn to fund his party campaign for the allegiance of fewer than 5,000 delegates. Now the dodgy donors return to haunt him. Or indeed topple him.

The official opposition, the DA, probably thought it a smart tactic to report Ramaphosa to the public protector – despite the DA’s utter lack of faith in her. But what if this official, with motive-filled mendacity, delivers a hammer blow that sees the exit of Ramaphosa and the entrance of DD Mabuza as president? The best of tactics need to be tethered to a long-term strategy, and not to the law of unintended consequences.

Meantime, our trust-deficient and politically polluted public sphere has found an answering echo in our previously admired private sector. From venerated brands such as Tongaat Hulett and Old Mutual to once-admired arrivistes such as Steinhoff, the stench of scandal and forced exits prevails.

Pass the popcorn and switch on the TV set to escape the farrago of public and private deceits.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.

Featured in The Sunday Times