SMALL details can tell a big story. Which is why the vote for the top six positions at Mangaung suggests that something important has happened in the African National Congress (ANC).

The election was widely seen as a test of support for President Jacob Zuma, who is said to have beaten back groups called the "Forces of Change" and "Anyone But Zuma" and their candidate Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. Its finer details suggest that something else was afoot.

The key divide in the ANC is not that between Zuma and his opponents. It is that between a nationalist group, which wants a bigger black share of business and the professions — and whose members use radical-sounding language to pursue that goal — and a loose alliance stretching from the left to centrist business people who believe the nationalists threaten the ANC’s commitment to nonracialism and are corrupting the movement because they are too close to the wealthy.

Both factions want to control the ANC and so would have been happy to remove Zuma, who is not part of either. But neither was confident that they had the votes to beat him. So it seemed likely that they would avoid a showdown until the next conference in 2017. The non-nationalist group decided some time ago that backing Zuma for a second term was safer than opposing him.

But the nationalists seemed to want to have their cake and eat it too. They knew their preferred candidate, Tokyo Sexwale, could not beat Zuma, but they came up with a Plan B — Motlanthe too is not part of either faction and they believed he had enough appeal to beat Zuma. If he could be persuaded to run on a ticket including figures supported by the nationalists — Sexwale, Mathews Phosa, Fikile Mbalula — they would control key leadership posts and would be strongly placed to win in 2017.

As Mangaung drew closer, this plan came unstuck. Branches have at least 90% of the votes at ANC conferences and they make their leadership preferences known in advance. The Motlanthe ticket lagged far behind in branch nominations and so it seemed likely that the nationalists would keep their powder dry and agree to a deal to avert a contest they were sure to lose.

But Motlanthe, who was always his own man, decided to make a point — that leaders should be chosen by votes rather than backroom deals — by contesting the election. This may have left the nationalists little option but to contest too. Their plan to field a slate including candidates who belonged to neither faction collapsed and all their candidates, besides Motlanthe, were part of the nationalist group.

This turned the election into what the nationalists needed to avoid — a battle between the factions, which they lost badly. The details of the voting show that this is so.

The vast majority of delegates voted for a slate — the difference between votes cast for winning candidates was only 75 or about 2% of the total. But the spread between the winning candidates shows, of course, that more than a few did not. While 2% may not seem a lot, it is often enough to turn elections. And so the voting preferences of these delegates, each representing hundreds of ANC members, tell a story.

The winning candidate who got the least votes was Zuma, suggesting that most delegates were supporting the ticket despite him, not because of him. A possible explanation is that negative publicity alienated some delegates from him. But that does not explain why the winner for whom the second-lowest number of votes was cast, only five more than Zuma, was KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize, who does not attract much negative sentiment. The likeliest explanation is that neither are part of the antinationalist faction and that this is why some faction members did not vote for them.

This also explains why the candidate who won most votes was not Cyril Ramaphosa but ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who polled 40 votes more than Ramaphosa and 75 more than Zuma. Unlike Ramaphosa, Mantashe has no great personal following. While some might claim that Mkhize lost votes because he is close to Zuma, so is Mantashe and that did not hurt him. So why did he do so well?

He has something none of the other winners had — a pedigree as a leading member of the antinationalist faction. So prominent a member is he that he was targeted by the nationalists: they let it be known early that they would put up one of their leading lights, Mbalula, against him to test the strength of the factions. So he was the one candidate all antinationalists could vote for with full confidence.

Mangaung’s real import is thus that the nationalists took on their opponents and lost badly. Not only did they win only a quarter of the votes, but they no longer had a candidate for president.

Sexwale seemed their clear choice, but Phosa also harboured ambitions to win the faction’s support and so he and Sexwale contested the deputy presidency. Phosa won seven more votes than his rival, so support for the two was evenly divided within the faction and a leadership battle was set to ensue. Ramaphosa’s re-emergence made him an obvious antinationalist candidate. While the nationalists arrived at Mangaung with a candidate, while their opponents lacked one, the tables had been turned.

The nationalists may also lose their most secure base — the ANC Youth League: an election by the league’s national general council could see Pule Mabe, who was part of the leadership but has now changed sides, elected president.

So the nationalists have suffered a big setback. Five years is an eternity in politics and heavy defeats can be overturned in that time — Sexwale told an interviewer before the ballot that politics is a marathon, not a sprint. But for now they will surely be forced into sober reflection as they decide upon their next move.

In the short term, ANC politics may well change. The factionalism we have seen so much of, may recede for a while. ANC leaders might not attack each other in public, there may be fewer leaks telling us of crises in the governing party, and fewer scandals about leaders (since most are leaked to fight factional battles).

The economic debate may become more straightforward and easier to understand. The ANC’s claimed shift to the left over the past few years was an illusion created by a nationalist group which knew that, if they wanted wider support, they needed to dress up their goal as an assault on the privileges of the affluent. We may now return to a more constructive debate on how to achieve inclusive growth.

But, while the ANC will now seem to be in better shape, it cannot afford complacency. Its core problems — a distance from its voters and a failure to address money’s corroding effect on politics — remain. This is fertile ground for new factionalisms or a resurgence of older varieties.

The ANC will need to use the respite created by the nationalists’ defeat to reconnect with its voters, address its internal problems and create a wall between money and politics. If it ignores the challenge, the post-Mangaung honeymoon will be a short one.

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.