HOW intriguing that in the very week that President Jacob Zuma finally defeated the pro-Julius Malema forces opposing his march to a second term, his only realistic challenger should have delivered the speech of his life, spelling out in clinical detail what has gone wrong with the African National Congress (ANC) that is threatening the future of the new SA.
Many observers have interpreted Zuma's victory at the ANC's national executive committee meeting over his opponents as a game-changer, emulating Henry V with a decisive victory at his own Battle of Jujuncourt in the War of the ANC's Hundredth Year to open the way for him to lay claim to the throne at Mangaung in December.
Maybe so. Zuma certainly has manipulated himself into a powerful position, building up KwaZulu-Natal as his base constituency and using every trick in his patronage bag to ensure he has a majority at that national conference.
But then the Thin Man hadn't sung yet.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is no firebrand. He is a soft-spoken man with a modest demeanour and a quiet dignity, the kind of person the ANC should regard as its ideal candidate, who would wait to be called to service rather than campaign greedily for high office.
He is a thoughtful, thorough and articulate man, and at Liliesleaf last Thursday night, he delivered a surgical dissection of the ANC that must surely stamp him as a serious contender.
For 90 minutes, in what he confessed to me afterwards was the longest and most comprehensive speech he has ever made, Motlanthe catalogued in detail how the ANC has lost its way, indeed its very soul, and how it should renew itself.
He never mentioned Zuma's name once, nor that of any other member of the government, the ANC or its alliance partners, but his implications were clear.
It was a devastating critique of the state of the party and of the nation.
It had all the sweep and tenor of a speech to launch a presidential campaign, a tour de force of political analysis that prompted one struggle veteran to murmur sotto voce: "I wish we had him as the leader instead of the (expletive) we've got."
But was that Motlanthe's intention? If so, it was a curious choice of venue for a campaign launch.
Liliesleaf is an iconic place, the museum and conference centre commemorating the spot where the high command of the ANC's military wing met secretly to plan its revolutionary campaign and where its members were arrested in the historic Rivonia raid. But it is not a spot where masses can gather.
Motlanthe was there as guest speaker at a dinner to commemorate the work of the late Harold Wolpe, a noted Marxist intellectual who was one of those captured in the raid but later made a daring escape from security police headquarters to reach exile. A worthy occasion, to be sure, but it meant that Motlanthe delivered his gem of a speech to just 60 people. Hardly a presidential campaign launch.
But it was enough to give at least those present a glimpse of the calibre of a man I believe should be out there on the hustings campaigning openly for a job he is eminently qualified to hold.
The fact that he is not, because of the ANC's phoney tradition of individual reticence, is one more illustration of what is wrong with the ruling party.
Motlanthe made many trenchant points in his marathon speech, but I shall focus on just a few that I thought particularly salient.
. Dry bones. Don't celebrate dead ideas. "Today we look at resolutions and talk to resolutions and that is what determines our limitations.
"But if they represent dry bones, then they are incapable of leading SA to a prosperous future. We can't be sentimental about it.
"The ANC has to accept that it has no monopoly of wisdom and that it can best progress if it mobilises the best of talent."
Returning to this theme later, Motlanthe warned of the danger of static thinking.
"It is very easy when you have a glorious past to say that those are our standards, we will live by those standards only. You then become suspicious of new ideas.
"When you celebrate the past and allow the past to become the beginning and the end, then you become conservative and you preserve the truths of yesterday - which may not be the truths of today."
. He warned, too, against the prevalence of incomprehensible documents drafted in what he called "inherited language".
He cited a recent document, titled The Second Transition, which was prepared for the ANC's policy conference to be held later this month. "Second transition! Second transition!" he sneered.
"From where to where? What constituted the first transition?
"What were the tasks of the first phase? Have all those tasks been accomplished? The language used is a smattering of Marxist jargon. Concepts must convey what they are meant to convey."
. The ANC is slowly but surely drifting towards a position where it regards the opposition as the enemy.
This is because today's ANC members are not the same as those who joined the organisation in its days of illegality.
"Those who joined at that time received no reward and faced the possibility that they could be eliminated.
"Today's new member is a different animal altogether. The party is now seen as a stepping stone to opportunities for self-enrichment.
"Not only new members but some older members as well are being overwhelmed by the temptations of power. Beware, power has an intoxicating effect."
There is also a tendency for the ANC to claim its views should prevail because it has a majority of numbers, but the duty of the ANC is to use the force of argument rather than to rely on superior numbers.
Otherwise, if it starts to lose numbers, it will lose its authority to lead. Then it will become an ordinary party and people may start to choose other parties.
.The ANC's commitment to nonracialism is slipping. "The absence of political training in the values of the movement is one of the ANC's weaknesses. Without training, the ANC will lose its character and its leadership role and South Africans will, of course, choose to associate with other parties.
"From time to time we now hear pronouncements from the ANC, even at leadership level, that harp on the note of racism. Yet it is the responsibility of the ANC to lead SA towards the strategic goal of a nonracial, nonsexist and prosperous country."
. But Motlanthe's most powerful call was for the ANC to reassess and renew itself.
"This must be preceded by a rigorous analysis of the ANC as it is today, so that strong points and weak points can be laid bare and so that prescribed remedies can be decided upon.
"The ANC should stand back, pull back, and take a hard look at itself and free itself of sentimentalism.
"If we do not renew the ANC, the reality is that there will be a realignment of forces. Nature doesn't allow for inertia, nature exists in motion all the time."
To be frank, it is hard to see such a renewal happening under a Zuma administration over the next seven years.
. Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.