Schadenfreude — taking pleasure in the misery of another — is not regarded as a civic or social virtue. Still, it was difficult for SA’s long-suffering citizens — long reconciled to the ineptitude and crassness of the governing ANC — to suppress some delight knowing many of the sins our political overlords have visited on us have now been visited upon them.

As Carol Paton pithily expressed on these pages recently, “It is entirely fitting that the ANC’s ability to hold on to power is now under threat due to the same inadequacies that it has inflicted on the government and the country.” (“Consequences of ANC ineptitude hurt in the right place at last”, September 6).

There was the sight of ANC workers demonstrating outside party headquarters demanding payment of their provident funds. Then the revelation that a party with a cavalier disregard for taxpayers’ money is itself a delinquent tax cheat. Oh, and the party that milked billions for itself from state companies via its “investment arm”, Chancellor House, is bankrupt and now resorts to crowdfunding to pay its bills.

But for the ANC the real nightmare was being knocked out of control in dozens of municipalities and most of the major metros in October. This was not so easy for the party of power to shrug off, as it has its unpaid staff and taxes.

Taking two steps back helps clarify things. The first happened recently when I interviewed ace international historian Niall Ferguson on his brilliant big new book, Doom, the Politics of Catastrophe for a virtual Franschhoek Literary Festival event.

We discussed one of his central themes — why we underestimate risk and how catastrophic events, from viral plagues to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, arise. These reveal something beyond the immediacy of the event itself, often the result of long patterns of behaviour or culpability or just the failure to plan and anticipate what was barely hidden from sight. It’s not just attributable to bad luck.

Ferguson elaborated in our chat on what he terms ‘‘the fractal geometry of disaster”. He said: “Nested within a massive event like the collapse of an empire are multiple smaller but similar disasters, each one, at each scale, a microcosm of the whole.” Perhaps, watching the rapid organisational collapse of the ANC we are seeing this: the small disasters signal the large collapse of the behemoth to come.

Just before this encounter I was in London and visited the blockbuster British Museum exhibition entitled “Nero: the man behind the myth”. Its purpose,  beyond its dazzling exhibits, is to do something that is familiar here right now: to rewrite or revision history.

So the exhibition posits that alongside a tyrannical emperor and persecutor of Christians there was another Nero: an urban builder, tax-cutter, and anti-elite crowd-pleaser (all those games and circuses for the masses). This, of course, is a hard sell, as the encrustations of mythology remind us he was the emperor who fiddled while Rome burnt. According to the exhibition, though, he neither played the fiddle nor was he in the city when it burnt to the ground. Of course, all this happened nearly 2,000 years ago, so contested, entirely second-hand historical accounts cannot be settled.

The exhibition made me think how, in a millennium — if our planet is not burnt to a cinder — history might portray the brief rule of the ANC and its current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. Nero’s death around 68AD presaged both the end of his dynasty and the arrival of a series of civil wars and huge instability, settled by the rise of the army as the political force in the land.

The slow death rattle of the ANC, now playing out in instalments, also suggests the arrival of a political future in which, at least and probably sooner than expected, its total grip on power will slip. Still, Ramaphosa has some ability in the game of “fractal geometry” to avert total disaster at the polls, even the default sort of loss via nomination bungles. He is the expert at needle threading or squaring circles.

On the one hand he can with candour caution his party comrades “not to underestimate the general feeling among the citizenries”, as he did last Monday. On the other hand, he has his banker, the party policy over which he presided for several years, of deploying cadres into key positions in “independent” institutions of state.

For example, ethically challenged and disgraced former spy boss Arthur Fraser, now at the correctional services department, obliged by releasing the jailed Jacob Zuma from his featherbedded “imprisonment” in time to campaign for the party in a difficult poll in a heavily contested province.

Since the “I” for independent has never been part of the official name of SA’s Electoral Commission, it is little wonder that the “IEC” resolved the ANC’s nomination mess by thoughtfully reopening the candidates lists after the final deadline. And this on the back of a Constitutional Court judgment where such an explicit prayer of relief had been rejected by the court.

It is perfectly possible that the commission’s chair and deputy chair, Glen Mashinini and Janet Love, respectively, applied an entirely objective judgment to this decision, which gave “the ANC a lifeline”. On the other hand there is the objective fact that Mashinini was appointed by Zuma in 2015 after serving as his “special projects adviser”. And that Love served more than a decade as a loyal ANC MP after a lifetime involvement in the SA Communist Party.

Little wonder that, in an otherwise low-energy waffling performance before the Zondo commission in August, Ramaphosa  reserved his passion in a plea to retain the policy of cadre deployment. The “lifeline” has proved remarkably handy in these trying times for the governing party.

Now that the jiggery pokery with the nominations and election date are settled, for whatever reasons, it is in the hands of the voters. People vote for parties for obviously different reasons. In 2016, when the ANC lost most of the metros, it was for many a judgment call against the misrule of Zuma. This time, with its president more popular than his party and the ANC brand so dented, damaged and defanged of  potency, the hope must be that voters will ignore its misrule and own goals and cling to the fading feelings of liberation plus patronage, Cyril’s smile and social grants.

Peter Bruce, whose writing I admire, suggests a key weakness for the DA, the only real contender for power in the major metros, is the absence or incoherence of economic policy (“Forget about nationalism, John Steenhuisen, it’s the economy”, August 25). I respectfully disagree. For the DA, the key challenge is not policy, it is the feelings aroused in voters when they mark their ballots. “What does my vote say about my identity” is the subliminal question that often informs electoral outcomes here.

For the DA, the hope must be that fed-up voters will this time make a transactional choice: set aside the normal emotive issues and mark ballots based on track record and delivery. Hence the party’s new slogan: “DA gets things done”, junking its old bromide “One nation, one future”.

The fractured and ailing ANC is the focus right now; but how voters answer these questions a few weeks hence will go some way to determining whether the local elections are a “smaller disaster” that prefaces the collapse of the empire.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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