What is political power? This is such an important yet misunderstood question for SA’s future after Tuesday’s vote. There is a kind of mass hysteria among the local media and some investors that constantly puts breathless hope above all else — especially rational analysis of this key question.

Political power exists fundamentally to self-perpetuate, to survive, to pass through succession planning and to protect. Only then is it useful for other things, be that job creation, boosting reform or rent extraction.

President Jacob Zuma’s ability to survive despite the odds shows raw political power and the ability to utilise that. His ultimate skill is to turn the ANC’s collectivism back in on itself for his own advantage.

Declarations that the opposition somehow won on Tuesday may well be true when viewed with hindsight in 2019, but they are irrelevant now.

The vote actually went better for Zuma than I had expected. I thought that while the motion would fail to win 201 votes, a larger number of abstentions could give it a simple majority over the ANC caucus line. And this is after the massive volume of credible, detailed and continual leaks about state capture since the last no-confidence vote.

Zuma won despite possibly half or more of his own caucus in an ideal world wanting to remove him from power. And that’s with a secret ballot, and maybe 15 or so ANC members not voting, absent or with vacant seats. This is first prize.

The fact that some 45-odd (depending on how you do the maths) ANC MPs didn’t vote against the motion is a symptom of splits within the national executive committee (NEC) that have existed since Nenegate. The ANC NEC dynamic is important here. The splits are deep and the Zuma faction may not even have a majority of members behind it now (maybe about 45%), and yet has been able to win successive NEC recall attempts. This shows that the internal opposition does not necessarily gain support when Zuma loses it. In reality, the key marginal chunk within the NEC has turned neutral rather than against Zuma.

Zuma’s political power must be gauged in this context and his ability to manage challenging circumstances. In an absolute sense of political power, he is undoubtedly weaker than before Nenegate and probably from before the cabinet reshuffle at the end of March. However, it is not clear others are much stronger. As such, he must still be relatively more powerful and so have the upper hand.

In politics, when survival at the top is all that matters, relative power is surely much more interesting than absolute power. Indeed, Zuma does not have complete freedom to do what he wants, but he has enough power to stay at the top and bring about the economic consequences we are seeing.

With the vote simply reflecting the internal issues within the ANC (think of it as a mirror of the NEC) I cannot see how Zuma is now weaker, or divisions are newly formed or deeper. In this sense, the vote is being massively overplayed and the centre of real action (in the ANC) is being missed.

Overall, it seems to me that Zuma retains a minimally sufficient amount of political power for the coming months.

The increasing contestation within the governing party into December is going to leave little room for anyone to get the required political capital to undertake reforms that, if successful, will be nauseating to vested interests

The ultimate test is December, however, which is about political power, but also flashing the cash – again something at which the Zuma faction excels. I expect it to be a very close contest. The Ramaphosa camp had started to see some shift of support from the patronage faction to its own before this vote, but it is a stretch to read the vote into this already existing process.

The issue of political power is also important in considering the supposed "clean-up" – the clear-out at Eskom, the stabilisation of South African Airways and the changes at the South African Broadcasting Corporation. While it’s a useful oversimplification to consider that there are just two factions in the ANC, it’s also wrong (as Jonny Steinberg has warned in these pages) to consider everything as a battle of good versus evil.

The current story is often oversimplified to the point where any good thing that happens is a victory for the forces of good over evil. This is again a misdiagnosis.

The clean-up originates not in the "good" camp, but in the Zuma camp. It is an attempt to self-correct and prevent things getting out of control, and to (attempt to) prevent negative public relations from escalating. It is also an attempt to deal with previous unforced errors (for instance, Brian Molefe’s game of musical chairs) and a belated realisation of the solvency risk state-owned enterprises pose to the whole operation, and to try to find some degree of sustainability for this project. This will be particularly important regarding any future reshuffle. Seen through this lens, the centre of gravity of political power can appear somewhat different. In the interim, a question that never seems to get asked enough is this: is the amount of rent being extracted going up, down or sideways?

This is such an important issue for civil society to benchmark itself against. The exposure probably means the trend isn’t upwards, but nor is it obviously downwards — the ship has not been turned.

This, in turn, feeds back into strategic political decisions by all sides.

The point is that what may seem obvious is not necessarily so. After all the disclosures and everything that has happened, it’s not obvious that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will lose in December and it’s not obvious the ANC, with a vigorous campaign under a new leader, will lose in 2019 – although both are very possible.

The future of political power is important when it comes to reform. It would appear only so much political power for reform is delegated to Cabinet members. As such, we can get a destructive mining policy agenda from Mosebenzi Zwane and yet not enough political capital for Malusi Gigaba to launch any meaningful new reforms to boost growth with his recent 14-point plan.

The increasing contestation within the governing party into December is going to leave little room for anyone to get the required political capital to undertake reforms that, ultimately, if they are to be successful, will be nauseating to vested interests.

Gigaba is so fascinating precisely because he appears to have some political favour and, although lacking enough power to undertake meaningful reform at the moment, he does have a certain dollop of political power that allows him to push through some of the "clean-up" agenda.

He realises that the economy (under his theoretical leadership) cannot go over the fiscal cliff and be in an IMF programme, and that some fiscal restraint is required.

This, combined with a desperate hunt for growth drivers and personal (presidential) ambitions, should ultimately lead him to take some difficult decisions.

It all sounds rather promising.

Indeed, the mix of personal ambition, the steady realisation of SA’s problems and the challenging decisions required to fix them could mean Gigaba will turn out to be a most interesting finance minister, more in the mould of Trevor Manuel than what came in between.

If Gigaba can avoid excess ideological or leftist baggage (which Gordhan had) and build some of the technical competence Nhlanhla Nene had, while increasing his political power, the mix could be formidable.

Of course, the risk in such a broad and contested church as the ANC is that personal ambition leads to risk aversion (we have seen this with others) or that other forces, such as a need to feed the ANC’s patronage engine, distract or derail the path to reform.

Through all the mess of politics and weakness of the economy, though, it is fascinating that a route does exist. The transfer and deployment of political power will, however, be key.

• Montalto is senior emerging-markets economist at Nomura in London.

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