THE African National Congress (ANC) did indeed score a decisive victory in last week's local government elections, as it claims, but behind all the hoopla lies the indisputable fact that the times they are a-changing.
An analysis of the election results shows that we are heading into a new era of increasingly competitive elections with the prospect of regime change at the ballot box. In other words, real competitive democracy in which you, the voter, will be fully empowered for the first time - instead of just the party bosses who control the proportional representation lists in a one-dominant-party system. What the analysis shows - but is being obscured by all the hoopla - is that the ANC is in steady decline, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) is growing and has begun to establish itself as a legitimate alternative within the black community.
In the previous two elections, which is since President Jacob Zuma took command of the ANC, the ruling party has lost support at both national level and in eight of the nine provinces. The solitary exception has been KwaZulu-Natal, where the ANC has gained from the crumbling, geriatric Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which once ruled the province but has now raked in only a miserable 3% of the national vote.
Clearly Zuma is out-Zuluing IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthel ezi. But everywhere else he is slipping.
Indeed, when Zuma came to power he inherited Thabo Mbeki's 70% parliamentary majority from the 2004 national election. On last week's figures, that has slipped to 62,9% (well short of the two-thirds majority that had us on the edges of our seats two years ago).
In that same time, the DA's national support has risen from 12,37% to 24% - an impressive 94% growth. In these elections it gained in every province and every municipality it contested.
Yes, the ANC has retained control of seven of the country's eight metro councils, which are the main engines driving the national economy. But as David Williams of the Financial Mail noted in a television commentary last week, "The swing's the thing." That is the pointer to likely future trends.
Viewed thus, it is noteworthy that the DA gained significantly in every metro council compared with the last municipal election in 2006, with the six main ones as follows - from 16,7% to 23,2% in Durban; from 25,8% to 30,1% in Ekurhuleni (East Rand); from 24,39% to 40,13% in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth); from 30,62% to 38,65% in Tshwane (Pretoria); from 27,01% to 34,62% in Greater Johannesburg; and from 41,9% to 60,92% - a 45,4% gain - in Cape Town.
More significant still is that many of those who voted for the DA this time were not white. About 20% of them were Africans - more than three times the number in the national election two years ago. This may not amount to a complete breakthrough of the white ceiling that has bedevilled the DA's growth potential since the days of Tony Leon's leadership, but it has certainly cracked it open and established a significant degree of legitimacy as an alternative party for black people disillusioned with the ANC.
What of the future? Political predictions are always perilous, but our history indicates that when leviathan parties, such as the old United Party and the National Party, begin to decline, the trend is hard to stop.
This is because they tend to be coalitions of many factions, which makes it difficult to retain the original energy and sense of purpose that brought them together in the first place.
They become paralysed by the need for perpetual compromise between the competing factions, which deprives them of clear leadership and direction and ultimately frustrates all of the factions.
Whether the ANC is able to recapture the energy of the liberation struggle strikes me as being unlikely.
There is, of course, a continuing loyalty derived from those years, but it is a diminishing factor over time.
Compounding this is that Zuma is frankly a weak leader. He is a warm personality and a cunning politician, but he is lacking in ideas, direction and decisiveness.
Moreover, he is now surely beginning to acquire the image of a loser in the eyes of many of his followers.
No fewer than 133 ANC-held wards were lost to the DA in this election. That is 133 prestigious jobs, carrying salaries of between R13000 and R30000 a month, plus perks and tenderpreneurship opportunities.
That means 133 unhappy branch members and their families and friends, whose lifestyles are in danger of dropping out of the comforts of the middle class - perhaps into unemployment. Will they blame Zuma for this steep decline in their personal fortunes? Will they seek revenge on him through their branches at next year's ANC national conference in Mangaung - which some are already dubbing Polokwane 2?
A tricky year lies ahead for Zuma. With so many unhappy defeated candidates already on his plate, is he going to risk offending more by replacing those whom branch members complained had been foisted on them over their own choices?
Zuma promised to do so after the election, but in the climate of so many lost jobs, this could be explosive.
Conversely, if Zuma doesn't do as promised, it could trigger revolts at branch level. Either way, I smell trouble for Zuma.
And once the partying is over, there will be some more serious assessments of what these elections really indicate for the future of the ANC. That is when the recriminations will begin bubbling into the open.
Indeed, a subterranean leadership struggle is already under way, worsened by the foolish ANC tradition that frowns upon open campaigning for leadership positions - thus characterising what should be normal political activities as conspiracies.
Already the various factions within the ANC and among its alliance partners are at each other's throats.
There is friction between the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party , while ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema is always there to stir the pot to his advantage. Next year, Cosatu will hold its annual congress, as will several of its more powerful member unions. The knives will start flashing early.
I am an admirer of Zuma's survivability in these internal war games, but it doesn't help that he is now on the back foot, having lost support - and thus party members' jobs - in both elections over which he has presided. He is vulnerable.
The only thing in his favour is surely an awareness in the alliance that, while Zuma is clearly not a good leader, another leadership brawl, leading probably to another split, may be dangerous now that there is a growing rival party lurking in the wings.
For the ordinary citizens of SA, all of this is good news.
There is nothing so enervating and corrupting for an otherwise dynamic country than to have a dominant political party that becomes a fixture in power, that can sit back complacently and not feel challenged to perform better and pay greater attention to the needs of the people over whom it rules.
In politics, as in business, monopolies are bad for citizen-consumers.
But these local government elections have sent out a clear signal - that competition is on the way.
. Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.