The election of Cyril Ramaphosa this week may well make the ANC miss the opposition benches in 2019, but this will depend on what Ramaphosa does with his new-found power between now and the elections.
Will he be able to keep a balance between the mythical unity and the firmness required to close the integrity deficit that has come to characterise the ANC?
It was clear from the presidential campaign that the approach to state capture and white monopoly capital were pitted against each other by both camps now represented in the ANC's national executive committee.
And the real test of Ramaphosa’s courage is not his new mutterings against corruption, but what he will visibly do about it, starting in the NEC, where there are those who are probably implicated in wrongdoing, or at the very least are so perceived by the public.
An NEC adorned with the likes of Mduduzi Manana and Mosebenzi Zwane is not exactly a perfect picture you can use to create a new sense of confidence in a sceptical public. So what must be top of Ramaphosa’s checklist?
The ANC has lost credibility in a big way in the manner that it has been seen defending President Jacob Zuma against all odds. Ramaphosa’s key litmus test is to stop this prioritisation of the defence of Zuma, or any individual for that matter, at the expense of the ANC’s electoral chances in 2019. It's that simple.
Zuma’s continued tenure as head of state has to be terminated as a matter of urgency if the ANC wants to restore credibility. This can be done in a variety of ways, including with some kind of negotiated settlement. There is no need to chase Zuma away as if he does not have a constituency. Ramaphosa must get DD Mabuza to persuade Zuma to quit amicably for the sake of unity. Getting rid of Zuma requires the sophistication that Ramaphosa deployed at Codesa: taking the then National Party to electoral slaughter in a way that they looked forward to it.
Secondly, the stick to make such an eventuality of Zuma’s early departure possible is his appointment of a no-nonsense national director of public prosecutions, as well as the insistence on the immediate appointment of a state capture judicial commission of inquiry.
All of these are linked and must happen fast to ensure that the ANC will have enough time to deal with the horrendous fallout that may emerge from the inquiry, as this is sure to point an accusatory finger at some ANC leaders and ministers - an arsenal for the opposition’s campaign.
The evidence of wrongdoing is already glaring on some of the ministers and it will go a long way to restore confidence if Ramaphosa were to reshuffle his cabinet to exclude these so-called Gupta ministers, without apology. This is one instrument that Ramaphosa cannot blame his divided NEC for if he fails to act. He must use his prerogative to clean up the executive once he ascends to power, soon after getting rid of Zuma. The question of economic interventions - whatever they are called - relies heavily on cleaning up governance, both within the ANC and the government.
The 2016 local government elections showed that voters have an appetite to try an alternative or at least punish the ANC. The truth is that the skies have not fallen in the metros. So, unless Ramaphosa deals with the Zuma albatross, he will find himself in the opposition benches in 2019 and Zuma will have the last laugh as the last ANC president to become a head of state.
The NEC’s continuation of a culture of a missing backbone will turn off the voters in big numbers, as they will be convinced that the Ramaphosa-led ANC is still being remotely controlled by Zuma, who is a wrecking ball across the economy. This is the singular threat to the ANC’s electoral fortunes and it's all in Ramaphosa’s hands.
Given the rogue elements in the NEC, this is going to be a very lonely road he has to travel over the next five years. His stint in the National Union of Mineworkers and Codesa prepared him for this moment in history - a man who helped write the constitution and the National Development Plan has a pen in his hand once again, with which he can write a new chapter for the ANC and South Africa - good or bad.
The people will have a completely different measure to judge him with. The poverty levels are a time bomb, and all eyes will be on how he will use his acumen to boost small businesses, create jobs and navigate the poisoned chalice of free education that Zuma threw his way on the eve of his election to the ANC’s top job.
Managing the leagues, who were clearly not in his corner, will also be a manoeuvre to watch. What on earth will he do to win these constituencies? Will he appoint a youthful cabinet? Will he appoint Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in a strategic position? All of these issues will be an opportunity for Ramaphosa to show his leadership mettle, and the jury is out on whether he will survive them by the time the next ANC conference is convened.
Let me take this opportunity to wish you, dear reader, a prosperous year ahead. May God bless you over this festive time, until we talk frankly again!
* Tabane is the author of Let’s Talk Frankly and host of Power Perspective on Power 98.7
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.