In politics, like life, we are fascinated by who is up and who is down and who is the coming force and who is being left behind.

Fact is we are more hard-wired to respond to the horse racing side of politics –who’s winning, which jockey is on the inside straight and which contender has been scratched – than we are to the more complex, often vast and impersonal economic tides which ebb and flow in determining the fates of nations.

Far more than a close reading of policy documents for the upcoming ruling -ANC conference, we find the speculation of which new jockey will be riding the governing party’s horse more alluring. And it’s a little more fun than pondering the red ink which so discoloured our national balance sheets this week.

Last Sunday, City Press devoted a full page to favoured candidates in the presidential sweepstake, and perhaps given the enormous powers vested in the presidency, this has traction. The report went as far –more than two years ahead of the race – of seeing who is coupled on the Tote as president and deputy for a win. According to this analysis the combinations include Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe ( a coupling which covers the ideological field) or Ramaphosa and the Queen of Sheba (aka Nkosasana Dlamini -Zuma) which would amount to betting on two favourites or the reverse combination of Zuma and Ramaphosa. For interest, a few rank outsiders were also thrown in: ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize and minister Jeff Radebe.

Below the stratosphere of presidential politics , in the cumulus clouds of ministers and parliamentary posts, well-placed rumours of the imminent cabinet reshuffle swirl: These include speculation that controversial Speaker Baleka Mbete will be shifted from her post to the cabinet and replaced by the more acceptable (to the opposition, at least ) former minister Thoko Didiza. Then there’s another: thatTina Joemat- Petersen will be elbowed out by Zweli Mkhize. Take your pick.

Question is, though, does it make too much difference who is in charge?

Boris Johnson’s new study of the great British statesman “The Churchill Factor’’ was written with the precise aim of rebutting the Marxist idea that history is simply the sum of objective forces and –in the words of its subtitle – “how one man made history.’’

Johnson is hardly the first writer or politician to argue the toss of whether –at great moments of national danger – sheer force of personality, or human agency – mattered as much, perhaps more than the historic forces they confronted. He is unusual in being one of the very few politicians who simultaneously manages the affairs of a great city – London –and also can produce, in his breathless public school argot – “a stonking good read.’’

But while his book attributes huge accomplishments to his subject in his seven decades in public life, the irreducible fact is that Churchill’s genius and his ability to be “the beaver who dammed the flow of events” really mattered to his country and the world for around eighteen months.

This was the crucial time between his surprise appointment as Prime Minister of Britain in May 1940 and Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, when Britain stood alone against the Nazi tide. And Churchill uniquely gave it the vim and voice to fight Hitler. His nearest rival for the premiership, the upper crust Lord Halifax was a notorious appeaser, who probably would have cut a deal with Hitler, in which case you might never be reading this newspaper today.

Halifax, crucially, was a far more reliable Conservative than Churchill, who although called to lead the party and country in peril, had been a notorious party-hopper from the vanquished Liberals.

Arguably you can even shorten the period of Churchill’s decisive influence down to just over a year, to June 1941, when Hitler broke his devil’s pact with Stalin and opened another – in this case fatal –front of his war against the world.

Thereafter the might of America and the Soviets were far more consequential than the lesser forces of Britain in winning the war and ridding the world of Nazism. But for that short period between 1940 and 1941, it was indeed “The Churchill Factor” which made such a decisive difference to his country and the course of history.

Boris Johnson’s namesake, RW Johnson’s book, “How Long Will South Africa Survive ?”, captures in its title the existential question underlined by this week’s currency slide. It also provides a relentlessly negative view of this country under current leadership.

Surprising, then, to see Stephen Robinson, based here as the Daily Telegraph correspondent during the hinge years of our history in the 1990’s, accuse RW Johnson of being “over optimistic.”

Writing a review of the (RW) Johnson book in the Sunday Times of London, Robinson accuses the author of ‘losing his nerve’ at the end of it. Johnson’s crime here was to suggest that ‘South Africa might yet emerge from the morass of Jacob Zuma’s misrule…(when) a slightly better successor’’ emerges. According to the critic, this would “improve things in the margins, but the outlook remains relentlessly bleak.”

I don’t agree. I arrived in Parliament on 2 February 1990. On that day, the conservative successor to PW Botha, FW de Klerk, surprised his opponents and the world by upending 350 years of political history with his opening of parliament speech that day.

Churchill changed the fortunes of the world over eighteen months. In the lesser waters of South Africa, one forty minute speech began the job here.

But there’s a cautionary codicil here. It wasn’t just the switch of ruling party jockeys which started the change. As Van Zyl Slabbert noted , de Klerk’s speech was “a sell-out of everything that the National Party had held near and dear since 1948.”

Never mind then the chances of the riders seeking to succeed Zuma. Enquire which, if any, will junk the current way of governing and choose another track.

This does not require another Churchill, but does need a candidate with some of his courage.

• Follow Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA