THE next few days could be pivotal in the political life of this country. Starting on Thursday with the state of the nation address, we shall see whether President Jacob Zuma is capable of using the new strength he gained at Mangaung to give the nation some clear, decisive leadership; while in the course of this week, we should also get an indication of the influential Mamphela Ramphele’s political intentions.

Taken together, those two factors could shake up our political scene.

In referring to the new strength Zuma gained at Mangaung, I do not mean that he emerged from that centenary conference at the head of a stronger party. He didn’t. The African National Congress (ANC) is in a steady state of decline and Mangaung did nothing to reverse or even slow that trend.

What it did was simply enable Zuma and his supporters to triumph over their rival factions within the ANC.

That has strengthened Zuma’s control over the party, but it has not boosted his national standing which, if anything, is set to decline further as the arms deal and Nkandlagate and the pathetic attempted cover-ups continue to moulder his clay feet.

The question is whether Zuma can use his strengthened control over the ANC itself to break the paralysis that the tripartite alliance imposes on it.

Early signs are encouraging, with Zuma declaring the National Development Plan to be the government’s central policy project; indicating that he wants to push through the youth wage subsidy; and suggesting that education may be classified as an essential service, which would prevent teachers from going on strike — something they have tended to do just as students are preparing for year-end examinations.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) will fight all of these, particularly the latter two — and this is where Zuma’s mettle will be tested.

In the past, his resolve has melted away in the face of resistance from his alliance partners. But Cosatu is a much weakened organisation now. It is being shredded by the breakaway of splinter unions and its membership numbers are shrinking, while its most potent leader, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, emerged bruised from the federation’s own national conference last September.

As for the South African Communist Party, its bark has long been more fearsome than its bite.

It boasts a significant increase in its membership to about 160,000 — about the population of the old Transkei town of Mthatha. Moreover its leader, Blade Nzimande, has been co-opted into the Cabinet, where any dissenting voice he may have is muffled by the tradition of Cabinet collective responsibility.

So the road is now clearer than at any other time for Zuma to lead. This is his great opportunity to redeem his reputation.

But just as it is his great opportunity, so too will it be his final devastation if he fails to seize the moment. Windows of opportunity as clear as this don’t often come the way of national leaders.

As for Ramphele, it is difficult to assess her political potential, as I am writing this before she has formally announced what her plans are. It is noteworthy, however, that a number of other analysts facing the same disadvantage have not been deterred from writing off her chances of having an effect.

They say that while she is a great intellectual, they don’t think she will make a good politician; that she has no political base; that she is not a people’s person; that she doesn’t have the right charisma; that all she will be able to do is take opposition votes away from the Democratic Alliance (DA).

I disagree. Perhaps this is because I had the opportunity of getting to know Ramphele when she was banished during the apartheid era to the tiny village of Lenyenye, near Tzaneen, in the old Bantustan of Lebowa.

I can testify from that experience that she is not just a fine academic; she is a dynamic woman of action.

And she does have a constituency. She and the iconic Steve Biko, who was her close personal partner, were key founders of the Black Consciousness Movement, which ignited a whole generation of young black people in this country during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of that generation later drifted into the exiled ANC and the internal United Democratic Front when the Black Consciousness Movement was banned and Biko was murdered in detention by the apartheid state’s security police.

But its ideas live on in the hearts of many, and I have no doubt it is Ramphele’s intention to reignite those ideas and challenge the inefficient and corruption-riddled ANC with them. Ramphele was an inspirational figure during her seven years of banishment. She arrived at Lenyenye pregnant with Biko’s baby and, as she told me at the time, the news of her partner’s terrible death almost destroyed her.

The shock and agony of it caused her to suffer a near miscarriage, but the thought of losing the baby — "all I had left of Steve" — rallied her courage and enabled her to endure four months in bed until the infant was born. She named him Hlumelo, a Xhosa word meaning a shoot from a dead tree.

Then she rose from her bed to transform the local community in an astonishing way. She raised money abroad and built a clinic with two outstations in neighbouring villages, where, as a medical doctor, she not only treated patients herself, but ran nutrition and healthcare classes.

She ran a twice-weekly soup kitchen, taught local women how to grow their own vegetables, established sewing and knitting clubs that sold their own products, raised enough money to build and stock a library, as well as a day-care centre, where women with jobs could leave their small children, and started adult literacy programmes in five villages….

Most remarkable of all, she established a brickyard to cut building costs that employed 16 people, had its own tractor and turned out 20,000 bricks a month. Don’t tell me that such a person does not have the organising ability to found a political party.

Nor do I believe that the bulk of whatever voter support Ramphele’s new party is likely to get will come from the DA rather than from the ANC.

The DA is by far the best organised political machine in the country; its structures are sound and its supporters are highly committed.

It is the ANC that is brittle; its faction fighting and the endemic corruption that have poisoned its soul during the Zuma years, have made it so.

Dissatisfaction with the ANC showed itself when the Congress of the People (COPE) first appeared on the scene.

That potential support melted away when COPE destroyed its opportunity with an insane leadership row. But I am prepared to wager that the dissatisfaction is still there.

What is more, Ramphele doesn’t have to perform spectacularly in next year’s general election to have a meaningful effect. Just 8% of the vote would do nicely.

The DA has to do no more than hold on to the 25% it achieved in the most recent local government elections, for the ANC to find itself looking down the barrel of a gun.

Which is what we need to get a government that is more responsive to the people’s needs than its own patronage interests: real political competition.

• Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.