Transforming the socially engineered mess that democracy inherited from apartheid in 1994 was always going to be almost impossibly hard.
Perhaps our biggest mistake in the nearly two decades since the formal end of white rule has been to assume that the task was so obvious that virtually anyone could do it.
All we had to do was dismantle the artificial barriers put up by whites to keep blacks subjugated, and replicate the services built for that largely urban white minority across the country.
But no quantity of commitment or courage can make every soldier a general or every general a CEO.
Neither can every victorious unit commander translate that skill into the successful administration of a government department, a hospital or a rural school.
Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who now heads the UN High Commission for Human Rights, has always been a good friend of South Africa.
She was here this week to present the 10th Nelson Mandela lecture on the anniversary of his capture in Howick 50 years ago.
She prefaced her comments reflecting some disappointment at what we have made of these two decades of freedom by saying that a friend tells you what you want to hear, but also what you need to hear.
And then she listed the things, all of which we know about, that undermine our prospects.
She underlined poverty and included crime, corruption and a lack of accountability in her list. And, of course, she spoke about education.
"Those young people who feel discouraged need to be given a positive sense of self and the support and resources needed to complete their education, to learn the necessary skills and then access a job market - and one in which there are jobs to be found," she said.
It is a message our own Mamphela Ramphele has been hammering for years, urging us to start at the bottom by equipping our young people much better than we currently do to function, succeed and contribute when they grow up.
The national spotlight has been turned more harshly than ever on education this year, with Angie Motshekga isolated in the glare of public and political scrutiny. No one can credibly deny that she has done little in her job as minister of basic education to sort out the chaos she found when she took on the job.
Her public statement that she was a more-than-usually self-aware person, and that she had awarded herself eight out of 10 for a job well done, was laughable, however, and merely underlined how poorly suited she is for the job.
To visualise the task she faces, think of the recent television images of bombed cities in Syria and Libya and imagine trying to rebuild them as functioning suburbs. Our education system largely is a wasteland.
There are pockets of comfort, mainly in parts of Gauteng and Western Cape, but more than half of our school children are trying to squeeze something that might pass for an education out of the most dreadful rural schools.
Cleverly, perhaps, the education authorities have put the emphasis on the delivery of textbooks and now encourage us to measure success by the narrowing extent to which court-imposed deadlines are missed.
This kind of miss-measurement of achievement is something we increasingly do across the board.
We measure local and provincial government by the number of clean audits awarded and the proportion of their capital budgets that get spent. And we measure education by the percentage of matric pupils who negotiate the ridiculously low bar we have set for them. We count brickbats instead of bouquets and cheer when they are not too many.
We have allowed Motshekga to draw us into a meaningless conversation about the mid-year delivery of textbooks and whether the delay really has disadvantaged the pupils.
We dwell on the many missed deadlines for the eradication of mud schools and constantly recalculate the numbers to see whether they are going up or down.
We have been diverted from the discussion about children who graduate though functionally illiterate, about teachers whose union refuses to let them be tested on their ability to teach, and about how even a mud classroom can be a centre of enlightenment given a skilled and dedicated teacher.
Across the country, educators are struggling to process children and young people through learning rituals and send them off with a certificate promising skills that employers quickly find do not exist. A devastating report in the Daily Dispatch this week about conditions at the hopelessly overcrowded King Hintsa Further Education and Training College showed that Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education, is doing no better than his colleague Motshekga.
Students jump puddles of raw sewage as they go from residences with falling ceilings to their classes. The college has received only a fraction of the state funding due to it. The administration appears to have stalled almost entirely.
Our state education system is broken. That is the only possible conclusion from all the evidence released almost daily by academics and media in every province. And it is not going to get fixed by politicians producing yet more policies.
We need to coopt technocrats from the private and academic sectors as ministers of basic and of higher education, and give them the authority to hire and fire, to smash through the petty politics and union protectionism that are destroying generations of our young people. It is time for the government to acknowledge that we face a national emergency in classrooms and colleges.