President Cyril Ramaphosa with DA leader Mmusi Maimane. Picture: Brenton Geach/African News Agency (ANA)

In bridge, a finesse is the triumph of cheek and desperation. It’s when a trick is won by the canny play of a mediocre card which, in a simple assessment of relative strengths of the two sides, should have been lost.

In South African politics, a finesse is similarly a triumph by dint of nerves and opportunism. It’s when Cyril Ramaphosa, despite a mediocre hand, snaffles the entire game against Mmusi Maimane, who sat down at the table with the strongest hand his team had yet been dealt.

The ANC went into the election with a disarmingly simple strategy: We know we have in the past 25 years failed South Africa terribly but vote for us again and we will set it all right. It was stunningly effective, with influential former critics all trilling seductively from the same hymn sheet: Give Cyril a Chance.

Given the ANC’s record over the past decade especially, one must conclude that South Africans are either endearingly trusting or astonishingly naive. It is certainly a reflection of the race-based nature of our politics, which is getting worse not better.

The ANC’s new-found enthusiasm for expropriation without compensation of white land and, increasingly, its slurs against exploitative white settlers is the antithesis of the party’s non-racial heritage. The new note it strikes differs from the tone of EFF abuse of whites and Indians only in volume and pitch.

That racial template is further reflected in the growth of the Afrikaner-rights VF+, the resurgence of the Zulu-nationalist IFP and the progress made by the black nationalist EFF.

The VF+ has tripled in size, benefiting from the exit of disenchanted white supporters from the DA. Bemused by this unexpected dividend, FF+ is now scrambling to position itself, implausibly, as a non-racial party.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the IFP, led by the nonagenarian Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has more than 17% of the vote, allowing it to wrest official opposition status from the DA. The real popularity of the Jacob Zuma faction of the ANC can be gauged by the fact that it drew less than 54% of the vote in Number One’s heartland, down from 65%.

The EFF will be disappointed, but most of SA mightily relieved, that it has grown far less than the predictions. It moved from 6% to 10%, but its growth in absolute numbers is less threatening: in 2014 it drew 1.2million votes and this time around it is a little more than 1.4million.

While the ANC will be relieved to have only dropped five percentage points, its position is more tenuous than it seems. To start with, it governs with a much smaller mandate than it appears at first glance. Some 36million were eligible to vote, of which only 26.7million registered, of which 14.5million - around two-thirds, down from 70% - turned out to vote, and from which the ANC will draw well under 9million votes.

For the DA, the results are unambiguously disastrous. The DA vote will be less than the 22.2% it got in 2014. In actual numbers rather than percentages, the DA stall is more obvious.

In 1999 to 2014, the DA vote grew from 1.5million to 4million. That was despite white emigration, its historical support coming from low-population growth minorities, and having leaders - Tony Leon and Helen Zille - who were insensitive to the racial elisions and euphemisms that are theoretically necessary for a party to grow.

Maimane was catapulted to the leadership of the DA, despite his relative youth and inexperience, in a calculated attempt to make the party more palatable to black people. It has failed dismally. This time around, the DA vote will be a million short of what it was two years ago.

Over all, after a quarter century of democracy, the terrain is becoming more clearly defined: a single hard-left party (EFF), a left-of-centre ruling party (ANC), a centre-right opposition (DA), and the far-right nationalists (FF+), and then the rats and mice of little consequence nationally.

If the top parties, with the exception of VF+ and the IFP, got far less than they had hoped for, the elections were a wipe out for the smaller players. Cope, which in 2009 drew 1.3million votes when it broke away from the ANC, is down to barely 40000. This leaves its Struggle-era leader, Mosiuoa Lekota, clinging at best to a single-seater canoe in Parliament. Since Lekota is now a captain with no ship and the DA is a increasingly a ship with no captain, perhaps they should talk?

The one entity that should be licking its wounds and showing some public remorse is the Independent Electoral Commission. Whenever a senior IEC official appeared on television any useful information imparted was bookended with a self-congratulatory little homily on how well it had performed. It didn’t - this was the worst organised election since the understandable barely-controlled chaos of 1994 - and while the IEC failures probably made no significant difference to the result, next time we might not be so fortunate.

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** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.