President Jacob Zuma arrives with Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete to give his state of the nation address at the opening session of Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
President Jacob Zuma arrives with Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete to give his state of the nation address at the opening session of Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday. Zuma hung his Nkandla defenders out to dry at the Constitutional Court earlier this week, says the writer. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

GREY skies brooded overhead during a hastily arranged media trip to Nkandla last year. Lt-Gen Mondli Zuma (no relation to Number One) was at the head of the tour bus. His title then was head of South African Police Service special projects, and he played a key role in the farcical probe led by his boss, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, into Nkandla.

Lt-Gen Zuma tried hard to "securify" the features deemed "nonsecurity" by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, in line with Nhleko’s attempt a month earlier to overturn Madonsela’s report and convince the nation that she had duped us with her findings and recommendations.

But in the Constitutional Court this week President Jacob Zuma hung them all out to dry, admitting after dozens of public denials that the public protector’s findings are binding and conceding that he will pay back the money.

Zuma may have renounced the probe into Nkandla, but his namesake has still been rewarded for his part in the cover-up through a promotion to Mpumalanga police commissioner. He is in the right faction of the African National Congress (ANC).

The arguments in the Constitutional Court mark a critical moment for the ANC, particularly as it elects new leaders next year. The party has failed spectacularly post-Polokwane to dismantle the architecture that allows power to be concentrated in its president, entrenching the very practices that ostensibly led to Thabo Mbeki’s ousting. The party remains factional and sycophantic, mindlessly approving its leader’s every action under a mirage of collective leadership that has allowed Zuma’s Big Man leadership style to flourish.

The ANC has to realise that the calibre of its leadership has declined dramatically across the board over the last decade and a half, and that it is sliding rapidly down the path to oblivion that so many other liberation movements have followed.

In Anthony Butler’s Remaking the ANC, Thiven Reddy is quoted on the conditions that led to the near-decimation of the Indian National Congress in that country’s 2014 elections, including "high inflation and price rises, leadership weaknesses, corruption and unclear party-state relations". Sound familiar?

Reddy said the party’s demise was hastened by "organisational weaknesses" over decades. He refers to "degenerative factionalism", where factions used their strength to win positions in the party and in the state, accumulate spoils and exchange these resources to win grass-roots support.

"This type of politics fuels extensive corruption as vertical networks of political patronage, from state to society, produce a form of politics in which public resources are exchanged for support. As state resources are limited, factional conflict increases in intensity, eventually becoming unsustainable without destroying the party organisation," Reddy said.

These are precisely the conditions that have led to the election of war-mongering, near middle-aged Collen Maine as president of the ANC Youth League, the conditions that have led to the implosion of trade union federation Cosatu, and that have turned the South African Communist Party into a government mouthpiece.

An internal ANC document on factionalism has highlighted the danger of the practice and also of slate politics, which leaders have denounced time and again while doing nothing to stamp it out. But it is time the party started seriously grappling with the "what then" question haunting those who want to see the back of our giggling, and now proven to be lying, president. It cannot continue to sit back and play victim to the excesses of its Number One member. It needs to modernise, democratise and root out the practices that are destroying its political capital, chief of these being its inability to place the wellbeing of SA ahead of its own factions.

This week’s Constitutional Court hearings have left many, inside and outside the ANC, openly looking forward to seeing Zuma’s back. But the party and the country have to start charting a way forward that does not include the destructive structures and practices that elevated Zuma to the presidency. The lure of gaining access to state resources through political power remains strong. Ask the man who was a product of that destructive factionalism before being spat out by the ANC — Julius Malema.

• Marrian is political editor