When I was leader of the opposition, I once compared the job with its certain punishments and uncertain prospects as “making bricks without straw”. Sometimes there were opportunities to reach and targets to hit, but equally the very basics for construction were often missing.

From a now vanished age, late United Party MP and opposition stalwart Dr Gideon Jacobs summed up this job with an unsentimental, realistic eye. He wrote: “The advantages are nearly all with the government. They can create diversions, announce new policy initiatives, manipulate situations. The leader of the opposition has few of these options.”

Decades and much more democracy later, this lapidary observation still applies. Just as it did to a contemporary of Jacobs, the late Dr Van Zyl Slabbert. His political career and aspects of his personal life are the subject of a new book by historian Albert Grundlingh, Slabbert: Man On a Mission (Jonathan Ball Publishers).

Slabbert, who had an alleged “five-year attention span”, grew so despairing on the futility of his task as leader of the opposition that he threw in the towel completely and in a spectacular moment in late February 1986 walked out of parliament and resigned his party leadership. This undoubtedly imperilled his party’s electoral fortunes in the polls the following year; but, the book argues, it opened up white South Africans to the prospects of wider change outside the stifling confines of the tricameral parliament.

Slabbert wrote sometime after quitting the house: “[Parliament] was literally a machine that thrived on the grease of political patronage. It was in its own world, totally removed from the daily struggle going on in the rest of society.”

He was of course describing an age of exclusion and repression, but many of those old characteristics apply to the parliament of today and the small ecosystem, and echo-chamber, inhabited by its members.

John Steenhuisen is now the eighth leader of the opposition since the advent of democracy here in 1994, which suggests a high turnover in the post, given there have been just four and half (if you include the brief stopgap presidency of Kgalema Motlanthe in 2008-9) presidents in the same period. My occupation in that office, seven years, is the longest stretch in what is now something of a revolving door.

Apparently determined to change the narrative of powerlessness – which ex officio attaches to the leader of the opposition title — Steenhuisen achieved a rare Sunday Times front page headline and copious good copy on the inside pages at the weekend.

“I’d work with Cyril, not with David Mabuza: Steenhuisen to block no-confidence vote in Ramaphosa,” the newspaper stated.

There seemed to be some logic at work here: first off, it removed Steenhuisen from the dunce’s corner where the same newspaper had placed him just a month before as Mampara of the Week. This change in his personal fortunes also echoed a deep concern among his core supporters and funders. This being that as weak and indecisive as Cyril Ramaphosa might be, he is Christmas and Easter and Hanukkah combined by comparison with the other actors in the shop of horrors of the ruling party: Comrade Ace and Comrade DD Mabuza for just two examples. So his remark is unlikely to damage or dent the DA base.

Of course, there is both a profound logic and an illogicality in suggesting the DA would use its votes and MPs to prop up a Cyril Ramaphosa administration and stare down any other leader offered by a now corroded and corrupt party machine. Steenhuisen in the interview said his party was open to working with the “pro-reform (anti-‘RET’)” elements in the ANC.

On the plus side, it makes sense for a 20% party, which is the DA’s approximate vote share, to take sides in a war to the finish in the governing party. The Ramaphosa faction will view the “gift” of the Steenhuisen offer as something delivered by the Trojans or wrapped by Pandora herself. But this will simply heighten the pressures within the seething cauldron of ANC politics at no current cost to the DA, since the offer is postdated to the next national election in three years’ time. Doubtless the real purpose of the message was to prove that the DA, after its recent battering and panel beating, retained relevance and to reanimate its base ahead of this year’s local elections.

The other plus of the proposal is that it makes bricks without the straw of real power prospects. It remains for many an enduring mystery why after 26 years of ANC misgovernance the gap between the ruling ANC and its nearest competitor, the DA, remains nearly 40%. I contemplate some of the reasons for this in my new book. But the current leader does not have the luxury of writing narratives; he has to try to move the electoral needle. Perhaps there is context to suggesting that the 20% in a scenario of the ANC below the 50% mark is a real number in terms of a new government alignment.

The downside is also apparent: if, as the DA has and continues to proclaim, there is no “good ANC” and the party is unreformable, then why would its principal opponent choose to prop up any faction of it? A plague on the whole house is the answer here.

This was the immediate response of wannabe opposition leader Herman Mashaba, who quit the DA amid high acrimony in 2019 and has now launched party number 46 (or is it 47?) cluttering the ballot paper, ActionSA. Left unmentioned in Mashaba’s riposte that the DA was positioning itself as “the third faction of the ANC” was his own dance with the devilish EFF to hold power for his brief spell as Johannesburg mayor. You do not need to be a psephologist to know that any DA voter would view an embrace of an ANC “good” faction as vastly preferable to any arrangement with the EFF.

More curious was the instant response of Mmusi Maimane, Steenhuisen’s predecessor, who now leads some form of activist movement in the netherworld of Twitter. Having manned up and taken personal responsibility for the disastrous 2019 election results for the party he led at the polls, on Sunday he blamed Helen Zille and John Steenhuisen for the result.

Most curious of all was the DA itself. Having achieved the rare feat of a positive front page spread, it seemed to be having second thoughts. Complaints to the media ombudsman over “quotations out of context” and “misleading headlines” and clarifications on use (or non-use) of the word “coalition” and so on became the late order responses on Monday.

Controversial messaging is exactly that: it excites attention, but it comes with a price tag. And presumably the costs were calculated before the interview or the statements were undertaken. You can’t tread on your own message or collapse a narrative just as it starts to receive airtime.

As for leadership, from which Mashaba and Maimane resiled, and which is now Steenhuisen’s lot to demonstrate, there was the almost perfect observation in 2016 by the Financial Times.

Its star columnist, Janan Ganesh, wrote that leadership in politics is “not quite the only thing that matters but almost. A party with a good frontman or woman can afford to get everything else wrong and probably will not. Most other variables — policy, strategy, organisation — flow from the leader.”

Wise words indeed.

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

Featured in The Sunday Times Daily