Politicians sometimes have an eerie ability to achieve the exact opposite of their intended goals.
In trying to protect the ANC “until Jesus returns”, Jacob Zuma almost destroyed it. The party that a decade ago seemed unassailable had lost control of one province and four major cities.
There was a real possibility that in the 2019 general election the ANC would add the economic hub of the nation, Gauteng, to those losses. And its national vote, hovering around a sorry 55%, might drop further, forcing it into some kind of coalition.
Then along came DA leader Mmusi Maimane and EFF leader Julius Malema.
In their determination to torpedo Zuma, they may have inadvertently virtually assured the ANC of a recovery in electoral fortunes.
Strategically, the outcome with the best electoral prospects for the opposition would have been for Zuma’s “recall” to be delayed as long as possible. To benefit an opposition vote, the stronger the election day memory of Zuma’s odorous miasma, the better.
But the opposition pushed too hard. They saddled a tiger that became remarkably powerful – civil society activism.
Through court challenges and judicial motions, parliamentary obstructionism, grandstanding and populist mobilisation, they drove Zuma into an ever-shrinking corner. That is where they would have liked to keep him for the next 16 months.
He would be politically impotent but, as head of state still, a constant reminder to voters of what the opposition had rescued them from.
Unfortunately for the opposition, the ANC’s instinct for survival, which appeared dormant in the Zuma decade, reasserted itself.
The long game played by Cyril Ramaphosa came to fruition. Despite winning the party presidency by the narrowest of margins, Ramaphosa acted swiftly.
Within weeks, the Zuma camp in the national executive committee had defected to him, Zuma was fired and the National Prosecuting Authority got an appetite for munching on Zuma’s corrupt cronies.
At a stroke, the ANC can claim it is capable of ruthless self-calibration. That this is fiction does not matter, as long the public swallows it. The signs are that it has.
Encouraged by the initially fawning responses of the DA and the EFF to Ramaphosa, there is national euphoria about the new president that can only benefit the malodorous ANC caravan that trundles in his wake.
It is astonishing to hear traditional DA supporters say Ramaphosa has renewed their faith in SA and they are tempted to vote ANC. This might just be the political version of Stockholm Syndrome – the survival mechanism that makes hostages develop trust in their captors – but it could be devastating for the opposition.
Arguably, this will hurt the EFF most. Ramaphosa has deftly drawn the sting out of its calls for land seizure by promising “orderly” expropriation without compensation, while its other populist platform of fee-free tertiary education is also now ANC policy.
While any diminishment in racial populism is welcome, the EFF’s decline would weaken the democracy as a whole.
The DA and EFF were brilliant in getting rid of Zuma, but they may have blundered badly in allowing the ANC more than enough time to reclothe the tacky models in its electoral shop window.
We’ll know soon enough, when the voters come shopping.