Nelson Mandela was the glue that held the deeply divided ANC together. Before his passing, he had been ill and out of active politics for many years, yet his mere presence had remained a powerful symbol for the ANC's rank and file. Mandela was a reminder of past glories, and a symbol of the hope that the ruling ANC might yet return to its democratic, caring and responsive roots.
Many ANC supporters believed that he either endorsed the current leadership, or was still involved in decision-making. This is one of the reasons why President Zuma and others in the leadership would wheel a clearly frail Mandela to campaign rallies, and why they were so keen to be photographed with him.
For some years now, the ANC's hegemony has been straining under the weight of its inability to reduce poverty or deliver jobs and effective public services. With Mandela gone, it is likely that its many disillusioned supporters may find it easier to accept that the current ANC and its leadership has veered so far from the values of Mandela it is a different party in all but name. As a result, we could now see the ANC break up, splinter or fragment as its members and supporters abandon it.
Next year's crucial national election is likely to be the most contested since the ANC came to power in 1994. The ANC may enjoy an electoral bounce as some voters give the party one last chance for the sake of Mandela. But this will be temporary. The ANC lacks the quality of leadership it needs to renew the party; it is also not open to fresh leadership or ideas. Too arrogant and dismissive of constructive criticism to be genuinely introspective, the party seems unable to reverse the decline.
This could be good news for the country's democracy. South Africa's existing political party system is not fit for purpose. The old parties – the ANC and those of the opposition – are so steeped in pre-apartheid political cultures that they are wholly inappropriate as instruments to deepen the infant democracy.
Recently, there have been a number of small breakaway parties from either the ANC or the existing opposition parties. However, most of them, too, are inadequate. While most of the ANC's disillusioned black supporters are to the party's political left, all the opposition parties and the parties formed after 1994 are to the ANC's right, and therefore irrelevant to ANC members looking for a new political home.Even Agang, launched recently by the former black consciousness leader Mamphela Ramphele, is on the right flank of the ANC, and is more likely to appeal to South Africa's small black middle class rather than the majority-black township and rural poor.
Julius Malema, the expelled former president of the ANC Youth League, astutely understanding the vacuum in South Africa's electoral firmament, has also formed a new party, Economic Freedom Fighters. It has leftist populist political and economic messages, and is aimed at the country's restless youth. However, South Africa's democratic system would be better served by a genuinely democratic mainstream trade union-based party to the left of the ANC.
This may soon happen. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is the ANC's most powerful union ally. It backed Zuma for the ANC presidency in 2007 in the hope that he would push for a deepening of democracy and more inclusive development. Some Cosatu affiliates and leaders are now realising this was a mistake. Cosatu's largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), is considering launching a trade union-based party, aligned with civil society, not unlike Lula da Silva's socialist party in Brazil.
Recognising the threat, ANC leaders have recently promised all sorts of rewards to rebellious trade unionists. But the arrival of a new party with a base in the trade union movement may yet breathe new energy into a paralysed party political system.