There is a third way for ANC
Aubrey Matshiqi, one of my favourite political analysts, posed an important question at a public debate in East London this week: Will the ANC succession struggle deliver a leadership that is capable of addressing the accumulating challenges of poverty, unemployment and social deprivation?
His question usefully threw a debate on "the Malema phenomenon" beyond a repeated analysis of the ANC Youth League leader's failings and personal future into a discussion about the future of the country under the leadership of the ANC.
This week's Dispatch Dialogue, called by the Daily Dispatch newspaper and the University of Fort Hare, can be viewed on the Dispatch website.
Matshiqi and journalist Fiona Forde, author of An Inconvenient Youth, a biography of Julius Malema, were quick to agree that the next 13 months - until the ANC votes in its next leadership team in Mangaung - will be dominated by an increasingly ugly battle for control of the party.
Malema will fight his five-year suspension with everything he has and, in the end, he or Jacob Zuma will be left cold on the canvas, they said.
But the match is not only between two men who have used the ANC to accumulate extreme wealth.
Their fight is a proxy battle between two of the many factions now vying for control of the country via control of the party that is likely to run it for many years to come. Domination of the party's national executive committee is the trophy each of them wants, but for these two, at least, it's not the trophy but the purse they're really after.
When the ANC went to Polokwane in 2007 to choose between Thabo Mbeki and Zuma, the split was essentially between just two camps promoting contrasting styles of government.
Corruption was already evident, but the public debate was about how to run the country.
Now, with the size of the available purse more clearly visible in the bling watches, champagne lifestyles and underground bunkers affected by the party's leaders since 2007, the ANC has splintered into more factions with bigger appetites and fewer identifiable policies.
In 2007, we knew pretty much what Mbeki was offering: over-engineered and over-centralised government by a team increasingly aloof from the lived reality of the common man, but based on a credible, if contested interpretation of the challenges of national and global government.
Zuma just promised to do something else and for many who were tired of Mbeki's ways, that was enough.
Now, in the run-up to Mangaung, we know that the incumbent offers empty promises of clean and efficient government, the abuse of state resources by the elite, internecine battles fought on government time and politically opportunistic decisions that ignore stated policies.
All the other side promises is to do exactly the same things on behalf of a different group.
The choice looks to be no better in 2012 than it did in 2007 if all that those of us who do not stand to get a share of the purse can hope for is that the ANC delegates choose the lesser of the two evils - and it is anyone's guess which that would be.
But there is another possibility.
Malema said after he was told he would be suspended from the party for five years that "the gloves are off".
Whether it was him or Zuma who first decided to go to bare knuckles, the fact that the two have each acknowledged the other as their real opponent makes it harder for the many on the ANC sidelines who have refused to choose sides to stay neutral.
Malema will challenge his conviction and sentence before the ANC's disciplinary appeals committee headed by Cyril Ramaphosa. If, as most think likely, Malema's suspension is confirmed, he will take his case to the ANC national executive committee and even to the floor of the Mangaung conference.
At each point in the process, more and more ANC leaders are going to have to look him and Zuma in the eye and reject one or the other.
Perhaps in that changed climate those who acknowledge privately, but so far refuse to say publicly, that they abhor what the ANC has become will find the courage to speak up and will be able to form a third force of good men and women who no longer do nothing.
With the current choices, I cannot see a positive answer to Matshiqi's question.
A process as soiled as the one we have seen so far, and which continues to grip the branches, regions and provinces as they prepare to nominate delegates for Mangaung, is unlikely to elect people with the skill and the commitment to make running the country - rather than stripping it - their day jobs.
But that is a process that relies on the darkness around the ring.
If Malema's legacy is to floodlight the arena and so force ANC stalwarts to stand up for what they believe in, there is surely a chance that the party will get a leadership truly dedicated to creating a better life for all.
free to read for a
limited period! SIGN UP