That was much closer than I had expected. The secret no-confidence vote against President Jacob Zuma may have failed but the rebellion against him implied in the number is significant. It means about 40 ANC MPs voted for the motion. So this wasn’t just Pravin Gordhan, Makhosi Khoza and a few friends. It was a small army.

They would be the third-largest party in Parliament if they split off (not that they would, I’m just dreaming here) but it points to a potentially massive split in the ANC in or after its December 2017 elective conference. If Zuma is able to secure his succession and his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, becomes president of the ANC (and its candidate in 2019 to lead the country), the vote on Tuesday portends not so much a split but a final division of the ANC.

It is a serious matter. Democratic South Africa (in fact, post-World War 2 South Africa) does not know life without a dominant party, a “leader of society” as the ANC likes to call itself. Former DA leader Helen Zille was right. She told me a few years ago that our politics was about the battle between the DA and the EFF for the left and right of the ANC. It is happening now on our TV screens, just like she said.

And like all reality TV, it isn’t pretty. Between now and December, Zuma, badly mauled by the Tuesday vote, somehow has to find the strength to take back control of his bad-tempered and divided party. He simply has to get his candidate past the post in December. He has so much to lose it is breathtaking.

This vote was not a Zuma victory. It was too close. And, worse, because it was secret, he can’t be sure who voted against him and as a former intelligence operative, not knowing will torture him. So the coming witch-hunt will be ugly. He may make mistakes. He has surrounded himself with such incompetent advisers he cannot, now that he needs seriously good advice, turn to them.

Where does he turn? It will be to an ever-shrinking group of people and, while Zuma runs out of time, the question is no longer who to trust but on whom to rely. Sadly, sir, there’s hardly anyone left. As Leonard Cohen used to sing, “Command of what?, there’s no one here, there’s only you and me, all the rest are dead, or in retreat, or with the enemy.”

He could turn to the Guptas. After all, they have money and they can get him the hell out of Dodge. Or he could turn on the Guptas, between now and December. Having them arrested on any one of the dozens of criminal charges to which they are vulnerable would do him no end of political good. They’re done here anyway and if they were in the country before the results of the vote were announced, it would have had to be somewhere very close to a long-range jet.

Would they have stuff on him? Serious stuff? Sure, but it wouldn’t matter if he could get Nkosazana elected president. They have kids together. She’ll take care of him. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced he’s going to throw the Guptas under the bus. First of all, it’s what he always does. Second, it would be wildly popular inside the ANC. Third, about three people have told me this is exactly what he is going to do. Or allow to happen.

There’s apparently an expression in isiZulu about throwing up something poisonous, like a fur ball. You just get it all out and it is done. Zuma, I’ve heard, has used this to describe how he needs to end the Gupta saga. We will see, but my sources are pretty good.

Zuma will be worried about his son, Duduzane, the Guptas’ local business partner, but not to the point of no return. Zuma may be implicated in the Guptas’ corruption in South Africa but I doubt he appreciates the details. He will from time to time have asked Duduzane if all the things people say are true. Duduzane will have told him they’re not.

Jacob will not be the first foolish father on the planet. Children lie. Sometimes tough love is the way to go.

Tuesday August 8 was a great day on our long and colourful political story here in SA. Baleka Mbete, of all people, would have done herself no harm at all by deciding to allow a secret ballot and by it ending the way it did. There are all sorts of things she can no longer be accused of doing — like protecting the president.

Whether that is enough to get her the top ANC job in December is moot. Probably not. That vote will come down to three people — Nkosazana, Cyril Ramaphosa and Zweli Mkhize. My best guess is Mkhize wins, with a Xhosa deputy, probably Lindiwe Sisulu. That would force the current Mpumalanga premier, DD Mabuza, into Cyril Ramaphosa’s camp as a deputy candidate. I just can’t see Nkosazana making any serious headway.

Which, given my record in political prediction, means you should probably put your money on her. It won’t matter much, though. The fact is that Zuma’s eighth no-confidence vote was a great moment for the opposition. The big target here is not December this year (though a reasonable outcome there would be a relief) but the general election in 2019.

If Zuma or an anointed successor is anywhere near the campaign or ballot papers when that election happens, the ANC will lose its overall majority. It may not even be able to form a government.

What was interesting about the debate that preceded the no-confidence vote was that not a single one of the ANC speakers tried to defend Zuma. They, like the rest of the country, know he is a dead man walking. The only way to bring himself back to life is to put the Guptas away. And that doesn’t mean letting them fly away. He needs to do something right.

The rumour mill is thick, after the vote, with the threat of yet another Cabinet reshuffle (it would, I think, be his 12th!) in which Mosebenzi Zwane, the minerals minister by personal appointment of the Guptas, would be fired. So would the alleged woman-beating deputy higher education minister, Mduduzi Manana, and the latest energy minister, Mmaloko Khensani Kubayi, who has done nothing much to get Zuma’s precious nuclear deal with the Russians back on track. Canning Zwane might be a shot across the Gupta bows but nothing short of their arrest will guarantee him succession success in December.

A tough ask. But it’s all his own fault. If I were Atul Gupta, I’d keep a supply of underpants and socks permanently in a bag, ready to run.

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