IT’s tempting to view the defection of Nosimo Balindlela to the Democratic Alliance (DA) from the Congress of the People (COPE) as meaningless because she wasn’t a great success as a provincial premier and because it’s unclear how many votes she brings with her, if any. Yet, in several different ways, it is meaningful.

First, it suggests that the efforts at creating a united front of all opposition parties against the African National Congress (ANC) is either over, or has been set back substantially. As long as it seemed possible that the two largest opposition parties, the DA and COPE, could create a united-ish front, these kind of defections would be off the table. Yet, it seems COPE has made up its mind to go it essentially alone, and that it would lose too much of its own identity in a strong confederation of opposition parties.

This has its own repercussions, since the trajectory of COPE’s support has been strongly downwards. Hence, the 30 seats the party has in Parliament will likely be decimated in the 2014 election if recent municipal election results are a guide. That leaves COPE’s small coterie of professional politicians in something of a quandary.

The second and broader issue is one of momentum. Ms Balindlela’s decision to join the DA benefits it because it constitutes a stepping stone in its effort to reconfigure itself from having an elitist white liberal character to being a genuinely mass party capable, in the long term, of challenging the ANC.

It also suggests a real desire for realignment within the opposition parties, since it seems the ANC’s normally strong storm breaks are vulnerable and becoming more so. Not only is President Jacob Zuma comparatively unpopular with South Africans in general, he is not even enthusiastically supported in his own party. The combination of the economic downturn and growing citizen unrest has made the ANC appear to be without authority and there is a general sense of malaise.

Recent by-elections suggest that voters want alternatives, and opposition parties are struggling to find a configuration that best takes advantage of that weakness.

Ms Balindlela’s decision to jump ship suggests she feels the DA is likely to be the biggest winner, and she may well be right.

The only problem is that voters are a bit sick of party-hopping politicians. After a whole batch of "crosstitutes" joined the ANC from other parties over the year, and then moved back again, party-hopping is rapidly losing favour. How loyal to essential party principles can politicians be if they swap parties? The DA needs to be careful it does not fall into this trap, and should instead put more effort into building a wider alliance in the opposition.