OUR public debate may not be sleeping through a revolution, but it is chattering through great changes, hiding the fact that the African National Congress (ANC) and the country are at a crossroads.

Given the debate’s obsession with personalities, it is no surprise that the hot news now is the ANC’s attitude to a foreign family, which is said to be the root of most of our ills. What we are not being told is what this says about the state of the ANC and the country.

The reason ANC politicians are leaking to the media accounts of a rebellion against the Guptas is that the battle for the future of the governing party is intensifying. At issue is whether the ANC will be rooted in the more democratic world of the cities or will rely on traditional authority and the rule of political barons.

The 2014 election brought into sharp focus a tension that had been bubbling within the ANC. It lost much of the black middle class in the cities — it did worst in Gauteng, the most urban province. Its urban politicians, notably its Gauteng branch, reacted by trying to win back city voters.

But others preferred a "solution" that fitted their style of politics: instead of trying to win back "clever blacks" in the cities, they want the ANC to sew up the rural vote, mainly by wooing traditional leaders (which is why part of government has been trying to give chiefs more power over citizens), and by using the state to hand out goodies to voters to win their support. Since this relies on deals between people with power and money at the expense of citizens, it is well-suited to those who want to use private wealth to subvert public service — the problem goes well beyond a single family.

Much is at stake for the ANC, including whether it becomes a party of authority figures with a strong rural base that uses private wealth to amass public power and public power to amass private wealth, or a party of the middle and working classes.

The battle is not one between good and bad guys but between two types of politics. Urban politicians are subject to pressures the barons don’t even notice, such as what happens to the economy when trusted finance ministers are fired.

The leaks about the Guptas show that the urban grouping, which has been on the back foot, is fighting back. One probable reason is that the barons — with the support of President Jacob Zuma — have been gunning for the South African Communist Party (SACP), which is drawn from the urban world that threatens them: both the SACP and its union federation ally Cosatu have been forced to respond.

The other is that the barons so frightened the urban politicians when they tried to appoint a finance minister who would do their bidding that they were galvanised into action.

This battle centres on the choice of the next president, and so it will be with us for at least the next two years (until the next ANC conference). If the barons win and the ANC becomes purely the party of power and patronage, this could spell its end: as we saw in December, taking on an urban alliance that stretches from Cosatu and the SACP to the banks is not a winning strategy. But that will not deter the barons and so the future of the governing party will be in the balance for a while.

The country too, is at a crossroads. Just as it is simplistic to blame our problems on one person, so does blaming them on one family miss the point, however malign the family’s influence may be.

Dubious links between private wealth and public office are a symptom of a wider problem; that the bargain of 1994 solved much less than we thought. The exclusive (white) club that ran the economy and society did not disappear; it simply took on new (black) members.

Given this, it is no surprise that one of the economy’s problems is cosy relationships between power holders in government and wealth holders outside it, to the public’s cost.

It has become clear that the bargain of 1994 was less important than it seemed. Yes, it changed the political system and helped create a black middle class. But it did not end the divide between insiders and outsiders, which is why we see many tensions around us.

It has, therefore, become common to hear that the bargain must be renegotiated. Since it is not the Constitution that is the problem, but the failure to build on it to create a fairer society, what may be needed is not to tear up the old agreement but to address what it neglected — a bargain between insiders and outsiders that breaks up the divide between them. The business left unfinished in 1994 clearly demands attention.

So these are momentous times for the ANC and the country. We would be more likely to understand them if the debate were less hooked on symptoms and more on what they are telling us.

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