The ANC missed the opportunity at Mangaung to re-establish itself.
Perhaps it was just an illusion induced by the tryptophan effect of the yuletide turkey, but politically everything seemed a little bit calmer, even a little bit better, after-Mangaung.
Perhaps it was simply that Mangaung was over, its contaminating, toxic impact on the body politic a thing of the past. The sense of relief among the ANC leadership was palpable too. As one Cabinet minister put it: "The best thing about Mangaung is that all the worst things we feared might happen did not."
That the ruling party's five-yearly national elective conference did not descend into the sort of violence that had scarred some of the provincial conferences in the run-up and did not end in rancid division shows just how modest its expectations are now – and just how low it has stooped.
It was testament, moreover, not to some newfound unity – however skilfully Jacob Zuma manufactured a "feel good" factor, like an awful film with a sweet ending – but that the Zuma faction's victory was so complete.
When the challengers are vanquished so decisively, so too is the prospect of rancour and discord. In due course, it will return. But for the time being at least, the ANC has a chance to rebuild and to recover lost ground.
But, arguably, the ANC's character has long ago changed beyond the point of no return: to some observers of the Mangaung proceedings it has become a party of "arrivistes", a vehicle for the socioeconomic advancement of individuals, but not the grand driver of structural social change and reform it once was.
To others, it is a party of "thugs", which is what prompted one experienced political journalist to tweet shortly after Cyril Ramaphosa's election as deputy president that he would "never be president of the ANC or the country".
Certainly, the ANC is far more erratic and unpredictable now than it ever was. Two plus two no longer adds up to four. Being deputy president of the organisation no longer provides reasonable assurance that you will take on the top job next time around – one need look no further than Kgalema Motlanthe to see how that has played out in his case.
Accordingly, in this way of thinking, Ramaphosa's dramatic return to public life – encouraging though it is for many to have a moderate, one-nation leader who is so comfortable in his own skin, and with such an extraordinary curriculum vitae, back close to the centre of political power – is also an illusion, because in 2017, having lost power in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth in the 2016 municipal elections, the ANC will turf him out and turn instead to a nasty populist nationalist as its next leader.
Ramaphosa is just one man – supremely talented though he is. He has an immense task and he will have to gather around him a strong group – in essence, to rebuild the centre ground within the ANC, the "sensible left", whose voice and political weight has been in decline first as a result of Thabo Mbeki's political vicissitudes and, more recently, by Zuma's dumbing-down anti-intellectualism and use of patronage to dispense and control power.
So, watch who is on the ANC's new national working committee and who emerges as key players in the organisation's policy subcommittees, to see how the real balance of forces align for the next five years.
While the party has not yet lost all its intellectuals – some of whom were returned or re-elected to its national executive committee (NEC), along with a potpourri of nationalists and Zuma confidantes speckled within the surprising and interesting return of a handful of Mbeki-ites – it has lost much of its intellectual character: its ability to analyse carefully and responsibly, as well as to understand the structural and class parameters and imperatives of its own society and its role within it.
This is the process that Ramaphosa must lead: a process that is about recovering the ANC's intellectual capital, its capacity not just to "think things through", but to work things out when the severest challenges arise – a lost capacity that was exposed most brutally last year in the case of the Marikana massacre.
Hence, the real test of progress, and the first and most important thing to look out for as the new political year unfolds, will be whether the ANC and government can restore multistakeholder dialogue and process-oriented negotiation as the core, fundamental modus operandi of South African political life, as it once was.
For the future, the new prominence of the National Development Plan (NDP) as the centrepiece of ANC policy and, therefore, now of government policy – a condition that Ramaphosa would have set as the basis for his appearance on the Zuma slate at Mangaung – provides an opportunity in this regard.
For the NDP was the other big winner in Mangaung. While the 2030 long-term plan merely identifies, but does not resolve, many of the trickiest trade-offs that must be addressed, it does at least provide the narrative space within which all the key social and economic stakeholders can engage substantively.
Thinking, progressive-minded chief executives, desperate for something tangible to hang on to as they calculate how best to open up a conversational front with the government, will be delighted about this affirmation of the National Development Plan. Ramaphosa, in turn, will need to ensure that his now-extensive knowledge of the corporate boardrooms of South Africa is deployed to good effect: to put real pressure on big business, to ensure that it plays its part in creating jobs and being open to the changes necessary to build a labour-intensive, low-carbon economy that is fit for global competitive purpose and, moreover, that treats its workers fairly and decently, both with regard to wages and working conditions.
As such, given his background and skills, Ramaphosa will have to play the role that Zuma has thus far failed to play: orchestrator-in-chief of a complex national dialogue that fully engages all the key social and economic actors.
The backdrop to all this will continue to be insecure, however, and from an apprehensive investor perspective, confidence-draining: the drip-drip of protest action, sector by sector, and the continued gnawing away of the system of collective bargaining.
There is no time to dilly-dally. Much will depend on the ANC's ability to get Cosatu, the trade union federation, to play its part in developing a fresh approach to both dialogue and building new social capital, as well as to policy innovation. Cosatu faces some tough strategic choices as it and its affiliates no doubt will feel the need to "talk left" to reclaim ground lost to radical breakaway unions – in the same way that the ANC will be compelled to do the same in the run-up to the 2014 general election: note Zuma's rhetorical flourishes in the January 8 statement last weekend.
For nine months the ANC will feel able to push the unions hard, before the need to secure the organisational support and capacity of the labour movement in the 2014 election campaign becomes a factor.
Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan, another Mangaung "winner", will be emboldened by his eighth place in the NEC election, having not even been a member of the NEC for the past five years. The treasury's hand will undoubtedly be strengthened as it pushes hard on a variety of key issues: public sector wage deals, corruption and waste, and a youth wage subsidy.
Mangaung has shuffled the deck of cards. The anatomy of power has changed, subtly yet potentially significantly. But the core socioeconomic fundamentals are unbendingly unchanged: the grinding poverty and unsustainable inequality; the degradation and indignity of permanent unemployment; the understandable anger of the youth; and the scope for violence and social destabilisation in a desperately precarious nation.
In these respects, Mangaung changed absolutely nothing.