With Jacob Zuma re-elected in the ANC's internal poll, the party will now have to turn its attention to the nationwide vote in 2014 – and the impact of a popular Kgalema Motlanthe losing at Mangaung.
The ANC will have a little under a year and a half to mount a campaign to deal with the indications that the general voting public is not as enamoured of his leadership as ANC branch delegates are.
According to the latest available big-group public perception survey, released by TNS South Africa last week, 52% of South Africans approve of how Zuma is doing his job as president. In a sample of more than 3 000, the only group in which more than 60% approved of Zuma's performance were black people outside of metro areas. By contrast, among city dwellers, Zuma remained below a 50% approval rating.
But far more people would, it seems, have preferred Kgalema Motlanthe in charge of the ANC; his overall job-approval was at 70%, with between 74% and 76% of non-metro respondents, black respondents and rural black respondents liking what they were seeing from him.
The numbers show a huge surge in Motlanthe's popularity as he challenged Zuma for the top job, especially in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the North West. At the beginning of the year, with Motlanthe relatively unknown, his approval rating hovered just under or just over half, but the Anything But Zuma (ABZ) campaign – which failed among Mangaung delegates – seems to have found him considerable favour among the general voting public.
"If you take the question as asked, then that is a fair reflection of what the country is thinking," said TNS senior advisor Neil Higgs. "A sample of 3 000 is actually quite big. The error margin is plus of minus two percentage points."
Though Higgs is "horrified" at the thought that the survey could be used to predict voting patterns in 2014, the numbers confirm the consensus of smaller data sets and analysts: if South Africa were voting, Motlanthe would have been elected ANC president at Mangaung, to be put in charge of the country.
That now leaves at least some people who voted for the ANC in 2009 disappointed at the party's choice of leader. The crucial questions are whether that disappointment will last for the next 16 months, and if it does, whether it will translate into a change in vote.
In 2009 the ANC saw its share of the national vote fall below two-thirds for the first time since 1994, dropping from a high of 69.69% in 2004 to a still-respectable 65.90%. The Democratic Alliance (DA) saw the exact opposite between the same elections, with a gain of more than four percentage points to 16.66. In 2014 the DA will be eyeing a similar gain, which would put it above the level of support received by the National Party in 1994, the last time an opposition party drew more than a fifth of the vote.