By Allister Sparks
If the events of the past two weeks have combined to convey any clear political message, it is that Jacob Zuma is a lame duck a mere nine months into his presidency.
He has been hobbled from the start by the need to keep the competing factions of his coalition together. This has forced him into a strategy of constant compromise, sacrificing clear leadership for the sake of maintaining unity.
One kept hoping he would reach a point where he felt secure enough in his leadership position to strike out more boldly and confront the serious structural problems threatening the future of this nation.
Last Thursday's State of the Nation address seemed to offer the possibility of such a moment. It was given a huge build-up around the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release. The stage was set, with an evening presentation so that the whole nation could be glued to their television sets for a major presentation. And then he blew it.
The combination of "Babygate" and that hugely uninspiring speech has left our president looking like a pricked balloon - and the nation feeling deflated with him. All at the start of what is supposed to be our showcase year.
I must confess to having been surprised at the strong reaction of the ANC and its alliance partners to the latest news of Zuma's sexual promiscuity. It is not as though his habits have not been widely known within the movement since the struggle days, and when I recalled how everyone had rallied around him during his trial on a charge of rape involving the still anonymous "Kwezi," to the point where some supporters hurled stones at the hapless woman as she left the court, I assumed he would be accorded the same fierce protection again.
No doubt Zuma assumed so too, which is why his initial reaction to the disclosure was to lash out furiously at the media for its "harsh" and "unfair" reporting of what he regarded as a strictly private affair.
But we were both wrong. Somehow this new disclosure of Zuma's rampant ways has reached a tipping point. The party has had enough. It is angry. It has warned him to zip up or zip out. And Zuma himself has been shaken by the reaction. Shaken and weakened.
Pondering the reasons for this changed reaction, I sense there is something more than just anger that Zuma violated a pledge he gave the ANC leadership after the "Kwezi" affair that he would not embarrass the party with such behaviour again. This time he has made himself, as leader of the ANC and the country, a laughing stock, not only in the eyes of whites and the western world, but throughout Africa as well. From Ghana to Kenya and Uganda, cartoonists and columnists and bloggers are ridiculing him - and there can be nothing more painful than having your leader become a laughing stock.
It hurts particularly because the ridicule touches on Zuma's insistence that his polygamy should be respected because it is in accordance with African tradition.
He has argued that his actions in marrying multiple wives are more honourable than the behaviour of many Westerners who purport to be monogamous while having multiple affairs on the side. Fair enough.
But now the merit of that argument has been blown away by Zuma showing that he wants to have it both ways - and in the process implicitly besmirching the "African tradition" he invoked to justify his sexual promiscuity.
That is the painfully sharp point the African cartoonists and columnists are making.
I couldn't help wondering, as I reflected on all this, how ex-president Thabo Mbeki must be reacting to Zuma's justification. Mbeki had an obsession with what he regarded as the stereotyping of African men as sexual predators - an obsession I suspect lay behind his hostility to the campaign against the Aids pandemic in Africa which he seemed to see as an implicit racial calumny.
Remember how he went ballistic when journalist Charlene Smith, having herself been the victim of an appalling attack, wrote that rape had become endemic in this country.
Now here is Zuma justifying his multiple sex partners in the name of African tradition. Poor Mbeki must be apoplectic.
Just how much of all this weighed on Zuma as he stepped up to the podium at the joint sitting of parliament on Thursday evening is unclear. He certainly looked and sounded anything but animated. He lost his place, and fumbled with mispronunciations and malapropisms.
At one point when he mentioned the name of soccer boss Irvin Khoza - his new "father-out-of-law" - some parliamentarians laughed openly.
But it was not just the presentation of the speech that disappointed. It was the lack of content. It was supposed to give substance to the president's pledge that this would be "the year of action," that he would spell out his vision for the future of the country, of how he was going to deal decisively with those stubborn problems of dysfunctional education, massive unemployment, poor service delivery, mismanaged cities and parastatals that are stunting our growth potential and how he was going to make this a winning nation.
Yes, there were a few welcome bits about literary and numeracy tests for primary school pupils, the return of school inspectors and subsidies to encourage employers to take on unskilled young workers - but, for the most part, it was a regurgitation of the same old promises that the problems would receive attention, without telling us how.
Boilerplate when we had been primed to expect revelation. As the Sunday Times aptly noted, it was an anti-climax of Rubicon proportions. But whether it will have the same fatal consequences that PW Botha's 1985 damp squib eventually did is unlikely.
What is clear is that Zuma, a leader without vision to begin with, is now further weakened and less able than ever to impose himself on the ruling coalition.
But the ANC is stuck with him because it cannot afford another blood-letting contest over the leadership so soon after Polokwane.
None of the contestants in that fractious coalition is happy with the man they've got at the helm.
Cosatu's Zwelinzima Vavi, who once hailed Zuma as an "unstoppable tsumani", is now portraying him as another Mbeki, while Vavi's opposite number, Trevor Manuel, is probably equally disillusioned at the way his own role has been diminished.
The in-fighting will continue, but it will be aimed at pressurising rather than replacing the leader.
That leaves us with a lame-duck president in the first year of his first term. Will there be a second term, or will Zuma be dumped in 2012? At this point the only certainty is continued uncertainty.
This column has long predicted that the ANC-led alliance will eventually break up into its different ideological components to match the new class stratification taking place in our electorate.
That won't happen suddenly. It will take place incrementally, triggered by catalytic events that will occur at unpredictable intervals.
The campaign to oust Mbeki was one such catalytic event, Babygate and Rubicon 2 combine to form another.
There will be more as disillusionment deepens.