South African politics are noisy. Our daily news cycles are dominated by cacophonous stories about corruption scandals, racial tensions and, most recently, the ANC’s mad plans to expropriate land without compensation.

While this ensures there is never a dull day in this country, the exceptional level of noise and angst around daily events often obscures some of the longer-term trends playing out behind the scenes. Caught up in the daily vitriol, most of us fail to look behind the veil to see the quiet patterns shaping our collective future.

However, recent events in Nelson Mandela Bay have given us a glimpse behind the curtain and have revealed the most important long-term trend playing out in South African society: the gradual but ongoing entrenchment of coalition politics as the soon-to-be default mode of governance.

The build-up to the collapse of the EFF-led motion of no confidence in Athol Trollip in his position as mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay could hardly have been uglier. Shortly after the ANC and EFF teamed up in Parliament on February 27 to pass a motion in favour of land expropriation without compensation, EFF leader Julius Malema declared that his party would "punish" the DA for not supporting the motion – which went against everything the DA stood for.

In probably the most openly fascistic statement uttered by a politician since 1994, Malema declared that the EFF would retaliate by "slitting the throat of whiteness" and removing Trollip as mayor. His reason? Not because Trollip was doing a bad job as mayor, but because his skin is white.

In the lead-up to the vote on March 29, the media were filled with stories about Trollip and DA leader Mmusi Maimane trading jibes with the EFF. Trollip even invited Malema to "come and see for yourself" how much progress the municipality had made under the coalition government, which was formed after no party obtained more than 50% of the vote in the 2016 election and included the DA, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) and Cope. True to form, Malema reverted to racism in his response, tweeting "you are going, white man".

However, in the coalition country SA will soon become there is more to managing interparty relationships than hurling racist insults at your opponents. While the EFF publicly spewed vitriol, the DA’s coalition-management machine quietly sprang into action. On Tuesday night – two days before the scheduled vote of no confidence in Trollip – news broke that the DA had secured a deal with the small Patriotic Alliance (PA) party of gangster-turned-politician Gayton McKenzie. With that, the DA outmanoeuvred the EFF and exposed what a political infant the latter party still is.

In exchange for joining the coalition government, the DA and its partners reportedly agreed to give the position of deputy mayor and control over the roads and transport department to the lone PA councillor in the city. Despite winning only 0.27% of the votes in the metro during 2016, the tiny PA thwarted the plans of the loud-mouthed EFF, which benefits from media coverage completely disproportionate to its 8% share of the national municipal vote.

By combining the DA’s 57 seats with the ACDP, Cope and PA’s one seat each, Trollip’s coalition would have secured 60 votes – enough to prevent the ANC-EFF axis from getting a majority in the 120-seat council had the vote proceeded.

One of the finest examples of how it has already been playing the long game comes from Cape Town, where Helen Zille led SA’s first metro coalition following the 2006 local elections after no party secured a 50% majority

On the back of the news that the PA had decided to join the coalition, the small African Independent Congress (AIC) party indicated that it too might be open to supporting Trollip, giving the coalition government a majority of 61 seats.

What can we extrapolate from the events in Nelson Mandela Bay? As the EFF’s determination to collapse the subsequent council meeting showed, the DA gave the EFF a political hiding. The events revealed a lot about both parties.

Trollip’s victory showed that the DA towers head and shoulders above other political parties when it comes to its ability to manage the complex interplay of politics, personality, style and substance that characterise coalition management. This stems from the DA’s history of mergers with other parties, which has given it a keen understanding of how to balance principles and pragmatism in negotiations with prospective partners. As a result, the party has developed a deep institutional memory and skilled negotiators. The root of the DA’s success lay in the realisation that the party’s path to power depended on managing successful coalition governments.

Nelson Mandela Bay is not the first time the DA has outfoxed its opponents and the media.

One of the finest examples of how it has already been playing the long game comes from Cape Town, where Helen Zille led SA’s first metro coalition following the 2006 local elections after no party secured a 50% majority.

The DA cobbled together an unlikely seven-party coalition that had a majority of only one seat in the city council.

When the ANC enticed one of the DA’s partners to abandon it – a move that would have collapsed the coalition and ended Zille’s stint as mayor – the DA adapted by bringing Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats (ID) on board.

Similar to what happened in Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA’s ability to save the earlier Cape Town coalition surprised many in the media who failed to grasp the intricacies of behind-the-scenes negotiations. The Mail & Guardian mistakenly proclaimed it was a "major blow for the DA’s Cape Town coalition" when the DA expelled the party that had betrayed the coalition.

Far from it: after the ID joined, Zille’s government had a much bigger majority than before. The DA also deliberately agreed with the ID to keep the other smaller parties in the coalition because, as Zille reasoned, "if we don’t establish a trend of being principled partners, in the future when coalitions come to places like Nelson Mandela Bay, who is going to come to us?"

The DA’s strategic insight into the importance of coalitions as well as its skilled negotiators have put the party on the path to becoming SA’s coalition king. But the Nelson Mandela Bay episode also revealed just how badly the EFF — and the ANC — are lagging. The EFF’s failure is a clear indication of how unprepared the party is to serve in government.

The EFF has never implemented a single policy or governed even one municipality. Its defeat in Nelson Mandela Bay has done potentially lasting damage to Malema’s unearned image as some kind of political genius. Trollip’s triumph shows the EFF has a long way to go before it can really play with the big boys.

The EFF’s failure also tells us something about the ANC’s own lack of preparation for coalitions. After Malema proclaimed that the EFF would be open to replacing Trollip with an "acceptable" ANC candidate, the ANC insisted it would not be "dictated to" by the EFF. Instead, the ANC reportedly decided not to nominate anyone for the position of mayor, potentially leaving the people of Nelson Mandela Bay in limbo. The ANC’s failure to engage with the EFF’s proposal reveals arrogance. In the words of former president Jacob Zuma, far too many in the ANC still believe the party will "rule until Jesus comes back".

It is because of this arrogance that the ANC was caught flat-footed and lost the negotiations over Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay in 2016. It is also because of its arrogance that the party is still unable to see the writing on the wall that coalitions are on their way to becoming permanent features of South African politics.

This arrogance allows pronouncements like the one from ANC head of political education Nathi Mthethwa in July 2017 that it would be "defeatist" for the party to prepare for coalitions. If the ANC loses Gauteng or even the national elections in 2019, it could pay a heavy price for this short-sighted arrogance.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Nelson Mandela Bay is that it is time for citizens to take note of the fundamental changes sweeping through our politics. Voters need to start holding parties accountable according to their ability to run workable and productive multiparty governments. In the near future, any efforts to improve the lives of ordinary South Africans will depend above all on any government’s ability to manage successful coalitions.

• Schreiber is a senior research specialist at Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies programme and author of the book Coalition Country: South Africa after the ANC.