The biggest loser in Wednesday’s election was an institution, not a party or any leader: the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC).

Heedless of 25 years’ experience, it contrived to combine, in the words of Helen Zille, incompetence with “ineffable smugness”: double voting due to indelible ink that wasn’t; voting stations that were meant to open but didn’t or ran out of ballots; spoilt votes rendered thus not because of voter illiteracy but because the paper was unstamped. The bill of indictment is almost as long as the outsize ballots confronting voters across SA last week.

This “mendacity of mediocrity” — in the arch phrase of Peter Gomes, the late Harvard professor of Christian morals — has become the institutional norm in Zumafied SA. We accept the unacceptable, nod our heads at the lack of consequences for our malfunctioning government, and are complicit in steady decline.

By offering congratulations, and institutional deference to those who should be sent packing, we pave the path to national perdition. But despite obstacles strewn in their path by the guardians of our voting process, what verdict did the voters actually render last week?

In the ambiguity of the result we have the political equivalence of the psychological Rorschach Test: the ballots, like those famous ink blots, can be read in different ways to provide contrasting interpretations.

The most unambiguous result, though, is the big switch-off in the democratic process itself: 9-million eligible voters did not register to participate, and of those who did over a third (34%) stayed away. Once again, claims of SA exceptionalism and marvelling at our hard-won new democracy fade. Many of the disillusioned here join others in the world in opting for the mantra of American revolutionary Emma Goldman: “If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.”

This poses a key problem for the winner of Wednesday’s poll, the ANC. For all its self-belief of being a vanguard people’s movement, it needs to confront a set of stark statistics. It won an election with its lowest voter haul on the lowest percentage poll and on the backdrop of the highest nonregistration of eligible voters in 25 years. This means its outsize parliamentary majority of 57% of the seats masks the fact that only 26.5% of voting age South Africans support the governing party.

Early in the election campaign Cyril Ramaphosa posted a photograph of himself on a golf course, boasting how he had shot par on the first hole. Actually, the best interpretation of the results for the ANC is that its team captain was given a Mulligan by the weary voters who actually pitched up. An extra stroke granted after a poor shot.

Its cuticle-wrenching win in Gauteng and retention of power in eight of nine provinces is largely attributable (beyond team loyalty) to the equivalent of the governing party now being a one-club golfer. Beyond the appeal of Ramaphosa, there is the wasteland of the Zuma years, across-the-board rot and a series of cascading crises: pathetically low growth, an investor strike — even AngloGold packed up from the country before the last ballots were counted — sky-high unemployment and unsustainable public finances.

Still, now is the chance for Ramaphosa to show his mettle and whether he is a decisive leader or spectacular equivocator. Voters and investors will see his hand soon enough. First will be his cabinet appointments; next his decision on staring down the public sector unions (or not); then his much-anticipated reforms of our malfunctioning economy. He might, in the market phrase, surprise on the upside. If not, our parlous national situation will move from bad to disastrous.

“How do you go bankrupt?” asked a character in the Ernest Hemingway novel The Sun Also Rises. “Gradually, and then suddenly.” With R1.2bn borrowed every day, R1bn in interest accruing every day, and SA staring a final credit downgrade in the face, absent of a major course correction that could be a working description of SA’s near future.

It also might be a handy warning for SA’s second party, the DA. The election result meant it succeeded in one of its election aims (retaining the Western Cape) but failed in three others: improving on its national result from 2014, winning Gauteng and Northern Cape, or reducing the ANC in both provinces to below 50%.

The DA also needs to carefully and boldly interrogate its results. It did not clearly capitalise on the past nine years of abject state failure and it could not counter the Ramaphosa effect. Of deep concern is that it shed nearly 500,000 voters.

Of all the absurd responses from some of its insiders and supporters is the “good riddance” argument. In this view the party will be better and purer if the “fossils” and right-wing revanchists depart its ranks. In fact, two years ago these same voters were responsible in large measure for delivering black mayors on the DA ticket into the seats of power in Johannesburg and Tshwane. Inviting them to depart is an invitation to lose these citadels in two years’ time.

If the DA gets caught in the vortex of racially preferencing its supporters on a simplistic and electorally disastrous decision of going for “either/or” rather than “both/and”, a temporary setback will become, over time, an electoral rout.

It needs to think long and hard about what its offer to South Africans is about, and in many ways its task is difficult. Alone in the ring, it is a multiracial party. There are few examples in our racially polarised country of institutions that have managed to provide a home for all without being rent asunder by race holding. But a strong value system and its refurbishment is a clear essential on the path to DA renewal.

The racial polarity on offer from the EFF advanced somewhat in the polls, but not as much as some feared and its own leaders hoped for. The theatrical violence and simplistic solutions of the EFF now has a 10% appeal. That means, depending how you read the tea leaves, it has room to grow, or that 90% of our voters don’t buy their offer.

The rise of the Freedom Front Plus, to a better result than it has achieved in 25 years albeit off a very low base, proves that the EFF politics of black racial exclusivity found an echo in white SA.

But for the optimists among us comfort can be taken in the fact that extremism did not advance much in this election and over 80% of South Africans stuck to the mainstreams in our politics, even if fewer of them voted.

How both the ANC and the DA, with their different challenges, respond to the wake-up calls they received from the voters will determine whether the echo across our racial chasm becomes louder or fades over time.

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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