Editorial: Time for effective electoral politics
On Monday, the long lie that is the ANC pre-conference embargo on "leadership contestation" finally ends.
Branches may then openly discuss and nominate candidates for the top jobs and so can the South African Communist Party and Cosatu.
Of course, there has been frantic campaigning for months, pitting "the forces of change" against the president's posse, who are styling themselves as agents of stability in the face of political and social turmoil.
Do not expect gales of fresh air to start blowing through the corridors of Luthuli House when the buzzer sounds for the official start of the race, however. The distortions wrought by secrecy, by cash and the blurring of state and party lines are too profound for a 10-week campaign to deliver some kind of springtime of succession.
Zuma holds so many of the levers of power in both Luthuli House and the Union Buildings that the risks of an open challenge remain immense.
Kgalema Motlanthe is carefully applying the principles of game theory to this situation. He will not enter the race unless he knows he has enough support to make an impact and he will leave the decision as late as possible in order to manage the information asymmetry between himself and the president.
The risk, of course, is that he then has to rely on the loose Anyone but Zuma camp to campaign on his behalf while he remains aloof, ready to disavow it.
As a result, we do not really know what he stands for.
At branch level, there is also anxiety that indicating a direction contrary to Luthuli House will draw the attention of auditors and potential disqualification. Against this backdrop, other parties are beginning to sense an opportunity at the 2014 elections.
Helen Zille on Thursday delivered a major speech outlining an accelerated push toward a single, non-racial and constitutionalist opposition that identifies broadly with the national development plan drafted by the planning commission in the presidency. She made it clear that she is willing to sacrifice some pretty basic verities – including existing party "brands" – in a leap from the "burning platform" of current politics.
"We need to come together in a single party committed to building a non-racial and prosperous South Africa. If we remain divided we will be defeated… Giving up a small part of our political identity will be worth it if we can build a brand-new political vehicle to put South Africa on course and stay the distance." Zille is getting out well ahead of many in her party here, but she has to pull this off if she is to succeed in changing the face of opposition rapidly enough to be relevant to potential voters before the legitimacy of the constitutional system comes under more serious attack.
Those who are not comfortable with the ANC in its current form or with the Democratic Alliance (even a reformed DA) will argue that more effective and progressive pressure on the ruling party will come from the mobilisation of civil society.
Of course, we need more effective electoral politics and a rich public sphere.
Many in the ANC are worried about the party's prospects in a more competitive environment, but constrained by a failing organisational culture and an exhausted political imagination, they seem unable to articulate a clear vision, or any vision at all, of what to do about it.
The least the party's electors should demand of candidates in the coming months is that they look at the flames behind them and say which way they are going to jump.