The ANC leader Jacob Zuma recently declared that the party would "rule until Jesus comes". With a two-thirds majority in parliament, and the apartheid years still fresh in the minds of the black population, the chances of the white-dominated opposition, the Democratic Alliance, assuming power are effectively zero. So a split in the ruling party, as threatened this week, might be just what South Africa needs. But is it a realistic proposition?
The man spearheading the split, the former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota, summoned the world's media on Wednesday to what was widely believed to be the announcement of a new political party, formed of ANC members disaffected by the party's treatment of the ousted president Thabo Mbeki. In the end, Mr Lekota seemed simply to be testing the water, limply stating that he was "serving divorce papers" on the ANC. Not quite the same as signing the divorce decree.
Mr Lekota faces several problems in his breakaway quest. First, he presided over the corruption that threatens to make South Africa's defence forces a laughing stock. Second, as an ally of Mr Mbeki, he may find himself tarnished with the unpopularity that blighted the former president's final months in office.
The would-be breakaway faction looks decidedly weak, with its chief proponents Mr Lekota and his right-hand man at the Defence Ministry George Mluleki. No other "big hitters" were wheeled out to suggest that the splinter group had the kind of support that might prompt a stampede. Time is also against them. Elections are expected in April, meaning that even if the prevaricating ends and a party actually comes into being, it will only have six months to capture the electorate's imagination.
Early signs from Mr Lekota are not exactly promising. Instead of addressing the problems that worry South Africans – increasing crime levels, Aids and rising poverty – Mr Lekota devoted much of his time this week to pontificating about the betrayal of the ANC's traditions by Mr Zuma. For a population preoccupied by the struggles of day-to-day existence, this seems decidedly abstract.
In a best-case scenario a new party would merely nibble into the ANC vote, and officials in the Zuma camp have been downplaying any notion of a breakaway. Indeed some are thought to welcome the departure of dissident members so they can get on with the job. That said, many South Africans still hold the view that the threatened split is the best hope for democracy. And who knows what might happen in 2014?Reuse content