IF LESSER-evilism is the best South Africa can hope for, we are in for serious trouble. Even if the presidency of Jacob Zuma becomes an unpleasant memory in the near future, the consequences of the rot it represented will be with us for many years to come, unless we find a better way.

Marikana displayed to South Africa and the world the sorry shape of the erstwhile party of liberation, the African National Congress (ANC). Now the cries of "Phuma si ngene" (it’s our time now) are emerging from within the ANC to dominate public discourse.

A group opposed to Zuma returning as head of the party caucused last week. From the leaked reports, it appears they agreed on one thing — Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe should become ANC president when the party meets in Mangaung.

In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Motlanthe certainly seems capable of providing more leadership than his boss. That Zuma has been a presidential experiment gone wrong is in no doubt. The dead weight in his Cabinet has tended to overshadow those putting their capable shoulders to the wheel in health and science and technology, for example. And Zuma’s steadfast refusal to ensure accountability in his government is an outrage.

Certainly a growing number of South Africans — from mineworkers to the commentariat on social media, and from the shacklands to the suburbs — agree that South Africa would do well to see the back of this president.

But as an electoral platform, "anyone but Zuma" cannot address the gravity of the crisis in the ANC or the country. South Africa has been down this path before. Lesser-evilism was tried with former president Thabo Mbeki and the results are there for all to see. Zuma’s ship is now listing badly and some of the very same people responsible for this situation are now urging Motlanthe to come to the rescue.

The problem with the ANC is simply not Zuma, but the decay in the party that made him possible. It will take more than a personality swap to start getting this government to function effectively on behalf of the citizens.

For a long time, the ANC has been suffering a crisis of legitimacy due to its inability to reduce the stubborn levels of poverty and inequality. As matters stand, this government is unable to perform the simplest of tasks: deliver textbooks to schools.

Zuma has worsened this crisis of legitimacy. As his ministers went on a binge soon after they came into power in 2009 — splashing public money on German cars, hotels, overseas trips and now red shoes — Zuma’s strategic focus was on building a state based on fear. He revved up the spying apparatus, tried to muzzle the free press, militarised the police force and attempted a clampdown on democracy within his party. His most loyal praise singers along this path were the leaders of the South African Communist Party, that "workers’ vanguard" that can’t seem to find its voice on Marikana.

On balance, Zuma and company’s efforts to create a "security state" have failed. South Africa’s solid constitutional dispensation, despite being battered around the edges, has largely withstood the test. The Marikana massacre and its political consequences have revealed this failure in spectacular fashion.

The massacre was simply too much for many people in the ANC. Consider the otherwise loyal ANC veteran Pallo Jordan.

At the anniversary of the Bisho massacre last week, Jordan said the ANC’s leadership had been stripped of its dignity and had lost legitimacy. He asked: "How would we explain to JB Marks that, today, it is police from the democratic state who fire automatic weapons into a crowd of miners?"

Good question.

In a speech at the University of South Africa earlier this year, Motlanthe observed that "no organisation is guaranteed eternal life based only on its historic achievements or merely because it fashioned the course to freedom".

It’s hard to disagree with that statement. But demonstrating something more substantial than "anyone but Zuma" is urgent to build confidence that we are not headed toward a yet another lesser-evil dead end.

• Morudu writes from Cape Town.