Editorial: Feel it. The day of reckoning is here
Two blocs collided and the Jacob Zuma insurgents prevailed over an excessively confident incumbency. It knocked out a president, sheared off a chunk of the party and propelled what looked like a politically, if not ideologically, coherent slate of leaders into the party's national executive committee and the government.
The failure of ANC grandees to prevent this from happening in the open presented us with the shocking new prospect of a party at war with itself, caught between professing internal democracy and its institutional incapacity for an open leadership contest.
The clash at Polokwane is now the template by which the party's leadership and policy processes are most readily understood.
Certainly there are common features. The entire state machinery, including the security establishment and the public broadcaster, has been deployed in the fight and ideological differences to the extent that they are identifiable and subordinate to interests: power, money and immunity from prosecution.
But the situation is vastly more complex and kinetic now than it was in 2007. The coalition of the wounded had a clear short-term objective to unite behind: get rid of Thabo Mbeki. And they were clear that Jacob Zuma was the candidate to get it done. It was a disciplined campaign even if, like the dog that caught the bus, its main actors weren't so sure what to do once they had succeeded.
The opposition is now much less coherent.
Kgalema Motlanthe accepted his nomination as a presidential candidate just four days before the start of the conference. Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa are apparently on frolics of their own. Fikile Mbalula is the choice for secretary general of some anti-Zuma campaigners, but not all.
There may be any number of reasons for this.
Zuma, the South African Communist Party and trade union federation Cosatu were at the centre of the Polokwane effort and their organisational effectiveness is of a different order from what is on offer in the ANC Youth League, or the Gauteng and Limpopo provincial structures of the ANC.
Their candidate, too, was totally committed and willing to fight dirty for his position. Motlanthe wants to win at cage fighting while playing bridge.
And, crucially, despite monumental and, in some cases, successful efforts at manipulating the numbers, branch and regional leaders ignored national slates for their own pick-and-mix nominations.
In short, Polokwane swept away the old rules but did not create new ones.
"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." This is a warning from Antonio Gramsci that his sometime readers in the communist party no longer care to remember.
The centre of national political life
The specifics hardly bear repeating, but they include political murders, burgeoning corruption, ghost members and credentials battles, the invasion of the spies and the curbing of prosecutors.
It is difficult to see through all this smoke the policy debates the ANC would like us to focus on.
They matter, of course, because the ANC is at the centre of national political life and its influence over the government has, if anything, increased at a time when the Mbeki-era technocrats are on the run.
Much of the talk of a radical economic policy shift is overblown - an attempt to dress a more activist industrial policy in revolutionary clothes. South Africa's fortunes don't depend on whether we move a few degrees to the left or the right; they depend on whether policy is consistent, coherent, predictable and governed by the law, with an emphasis on the last.
Still, the final policy positions adopted at Mangaung will be an important bellwether of the extent to which the ANC's loci of credible policy are still able to influence outcomes.
Redistribution and intervention
The most substantial of these is the national planning commission, which is supposed to be owned by all South Africans and represents broadly the best in ANC-aligned thinking.
We hope its sheer accumulation of detailed argument will fill some of the space left open by blunter clashes over land redistribution and intervention in the minerals sector.
But, in the end, the question delegates have to answer is whether the ANC of 2012 is in better shape than the ANC of 2007 - and whether the country is. And for the first time since 1994 they will have to ask whether their party's prospects in national elections, where we all get to vote, will be enhanced by the retention of the current leadership.
In our view, the answer in each case is a clear no.
Five years of Zuma, five years of indecision, scandal and government in the interest of one man, has been hard on the country and on his party. Another five, or seven if he takes us through to the 2019 polls, is a desperately difficult prospect to defend. Of course, new leadership will only reverse these trends if it makes deep changes and there is no evidence to suggest that it will, although change may delay the reckoning.
Assuming Zuma stays, as seems overwhelmingly likely, we may be witnessing the last elective conference of the ANC as a party of natural legitimacy and 60%-plus majorities.
If that is so, we are in for more morbid symptoms and, just possibly, the first inklings of a new beginning.