I once compared being leader of the opposition to making bricks without straw. You desire to change things or shift opinion, but objectively lack an essential ingredient to do so. Tony Blair on the comparison said: “When I was leader of the opposition I started the day with ‘what can I say’; now that I am Prime Minister I ask ‘what can I do?’”

On the day last week when lists closed for the May general election, DA leader Mmusi Maimane held a press conference along the lines of ‘what can I say?”. He and his party needed to breathe life into the trope that the ANC is irredeemably corrupt. But with the open sewer effect of the revelations spilling out of the Nugent (SA Revenue Service), Zondo (state capture), Mpati (Public Investment Corporation) and Mokgoro (National Prosecuting Authority) commissions, it’s probably already baked into the share price of the governing party.

So no great shock then when Maimane, seeking a new and newsworthy angle, requested new prosecutions head Shamila Batohi to investigate racketeering charges against the ANC for being “involved in organised crime and racketeering on a grand scale for some 20 years”.

Actually, to be perfectly accurate, according to Stephen Ellis’s granular account of the ANC in exile from 1960 to 1990, External Mission, the roots of the criminal enterprise predate the party’s ascent into power.

But not to quibble on the margins. Maimane was attempting to refocus the attention of a jaded electorate to look beyond the headline asset of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, into the detailed and depressing small print of the corrupted organisation he heads.

Within hours, the same ANC had provided the bricks and mortar to sustain Maimane’s rhetorical construction. It released its election lists, which were a reprise of the famous line from the movie Casablanca, “round up the usual suspects”.

Perjurious liars (Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba) will adorn the top of the lists, alongside alleged bribe recipient Nomvula Mokonyane and chief Gupta enforcer Mosebenzi Zwane.

And that is simply the tip of a veritable iceberg, below which lies the huge success of the Jacob Zuma faction which – on credible accounts – beavered away at branch level while Ramaphosa was trying to right-size the ship of state which his predecessor almost sank.

The result is that in the make-up of the one faction of the sprawling and factionalised party which was hitherto a stronghold for Ramaphosa – the parliamentary caucus – will reveal a sharp reversal for him after the elections.

This might give pause to those who believe that a good ANC election result will strengthen Ramaphosa’s hand for a menu of reforms which his supporters want him to implement. Ironically, a good day at the polls for the ANC – which can only be achieved if voters do not look beyond the president into the murky undergrowth beneath him – could in fact weaken him further.

But, to reprise the old saw, “between a hope and a certainty only a fool hesitates”. That is the probable explanation for apparent double-think among traditional opposition voters who despair of the ANC as an organisation ever being cleansed of its corrupt practices and simultaneously willing its president, Ramaphosa, to succeed with his clean-up operations. The certainty of catastrophic collapse under the Zumas is offset by the hope of a less bad outcome for the country under Ramaphosa.

But there is another factor at play, at least among DA voters – fear and loathing of the EFF. And to be perfectly fair here, this sentiment is probably reciprocated. And on the hope versus certainty calculation, even on its worst day, an ANC government is going to be immeasurably better than the racist, ultra-populist and economically ruinous EFF.

On Sunday, the latest Institute of Race Relations poll revealed that among Gauteng DA voters, 50% preferred an ANC-DA coalition to 26% who chose a DA-EFF government.

In 2016, when Zuma’s road to national ruin was in plain sight of voters, it made some sense for the DA to enter into “arrangements” to wrest control of key metros with EFF assistance. The admission price for the seats of power in Johannesburg and Tshwane has been steep for the free-enterprise, liberally inclined DA. It has had to make a lot of trade-offs with its junior partner to hang onto power there. And courtesy of the inflammation of Julius Malema’s desire to “slit the throat of whiteness” in Nelson Mandela Bay, it lost its mayoralty there.

Doubtless in ignorance of what his own voters actually think and never mind his own searing experiences at the hands of the EFF, Solly Msimanga doubled down on a completely losing proposition last week. The former mayor of Tshwane and now DA Gauteng premier candidate advised Radio 702 talk show host Eusebius McKaiser that he “could not rule out a coalition with the EFF” if there is no outright winner in the province in May.

Leaving aside the incoherence of the DA asking voters in the Western Cape to “keep the ANC and EFF coalition of corruption out”, the Gauteng offer is both bad in principle and poor political strategy.

Making common cause against a Zuma-led ANC is understandable; offering the same again under a Ramaphosa-led movement is questionable.

If there is one red line which should be drawn in this election, it is against the EFF. It stands completely outside the 1996 constitutional settlement to which it does not consider itself bound. It is an entirely instrumental party – it simply uses the constitution to advance itself, but considers itself utterly unbound by its constraints and proprieties.

Of course, the ANC has energetically undermined key aspects of the constitutional settlement. But the Ramaphosa wing of it has some regard for its construction. Malema (and his party is more of a personality cult than an organisation) has none.

But here there is an opportunity again for Maimane to make his bricks with real straw. And to change the political weather.

He has told voters to “get used to coalition politics”. So he makes a conditional offer to Ramaphosa – in the event of a hung Gauteng – and demands a response. Ramaphosa is then on the spot: if he demurs, then opposition voters will feel less inclined to support him. If he accepts, he risks splitting his party, another key outcome desired by the DA. And it has the added bonus of marginalising the EFF.

These are tough choices, but that is what leadership, in both government and opposition, is about.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.

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