Johannesburg — THIS is my last column before the election. The campaigning is all but over, the stage is set. It is an important moment in our history but not an edifying one.
What was predicted has duly happened and the charges against Jacob Zuma have been dropped. He is now our OJ Simpson: he's off the hook but the majority of South Africans, as a recent Markinor poll showed, don't believe he is innocent. Zapiro should scrap the shower and draw a dark cloud over the man's head instead.
As this column has warned many times, the scandal won't go away. Unresolved scandals never do. It will suppurate on and keep coming back to poison those involved as new fragments of evidence emerge.
But for the moment it is time to look ahead at the shape our political landscape is likely to take after next Wednesday.
That the African National Congress (ANC) will win the election has always been a foregone conclusion, but the timing of the release of those taped phone calls that led to the withdrawal of the charges against Zuma just two weeks before the election -- itself the political manipulation of a state institution every bit as egregious as the one the tapes exposed -- will have given the ANC a huge boost in these crucial last days.
The dramatic eleventh-hour withdrawal of the charges will also hurt the Congress of the People (COPE), because it is inevitably linked in the public mind to the disaffected supporters of Thabo Mbeki, who is being portrayed as the great conspirator in the Zuma saga.
It must also be said, though, that COPE has lost momentum badly ever since its impressive first convention in Sandton and its launch in December; while the ANC, which was in a state of confusion and demoralisation then, has picked itself up and begun electioneering vigorously and effectively in recent weeks.
COPE faded through a combination of a disastrous leadership conflict, poor organisation and a shortage of money. The clash between Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa over who should head the list was disastrous. Worse was the insane decision to resolve the conflict by picking the politically unknown Bishop Mvume Dandala to head their election list. For any party to pluck an unknown figure out of the blue to be its presidential candidate just before an election is asking for trouble.
All this has caused me to revise my earlier expectations of the outcome. Whereas I initially suggested COPE could win between 10% and 15% of the vote, I'm now trimming that to between 8% and 10%. I predicted the ANC would be reduced from its 70% in 2004 to between 56% and 60%, but I'm now raising that to between 60% and 65%.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is likely to put in the most improved performance. I think Helen Zille's creative leadership and efforts to rebrand the party to try to break through its white ceiling will boost its share from the 12% it took in 2004 to 15% or more. It will remain the official opposition in Parliament and will likely emerge as the dominant party in the Western Cape, but perhaps not with the 50% majority needed to rule alone.
That will begin a phase of opposition coalition forming which over time -- and particularly come the 2011 municipal elections -- will, I believe, lead to a merging of the present array of small opposition parties into a single and more challenging political force.
But back to the more immediate future and the most pressing issue of the moment.
What kind of president will Zuma be and what will the priorities of his new government be? How much is Zuma indebted to labour federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party on the left and how will he repay them? And what are his assurances to the business community that the government's macroeconomic policies will continue worth?
The short answer is that whatever political ideas Zuma may have in mind, if any, he is going to be constrained by the realities of the global economic crisis. As Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni said the other day, those realities mean whoever wins the election will not be able to do very much at all. Economic survival will be the watchword.
Moreover, Zuma faces the risk that he has already set himself up for a crisis of expectations by running a populist campaign promising to reduce unemployment and improve the lot of the poor, on which he will not be able to deliver. Unemployment and poverty are going to worsen, and Zuma dare not do anything to aggravate the situation even more by scaring off what little domestic and foreign investment may be around. Any hint of a Hugo Chavez lurch to the left would do that, and Zuma would find himself facing a severe backlash from the electorate.
There is nothing more dangerous for any politician than to make extravagant promises and then fail to deliver on them. Mbeki's experience is a stark lesson in how swiftly ANC members can turn against a leader they believe has failed them.
So I expect economic policy to remain little changed, with the main payback for Zuma's left-wing supporters coming in the form of Cabinet positions and their inclusion in a new planning commission to be located in the Presidency, which will enable them to feel they are part of the decision-making processes of the government -- their exclusion from which was their greatest grievance under Mbeki.
More pertinent, then, is what sort of president Zuma will be. I like Zuma, who is a warm and friendly man, but I am not close to him as I was to Nelson Mandela and, at one time, Mbeki. My instinct tells me his greatest assets are that he is a good listener and that, unlike Mbeki, he knows his own limitations. He will not try to dominate everything himself but will run a more collegiate administration, as Mandela did.
My worry, having seen how the enormous pressures of the job can bring out the worst in a president's personality, as in the case of Mbeki and Richard Nixon, is how much bitterness lurks beneath that smiling exterior after the hellish eight years Zuma has been through with his drawn-out rape and corruption cases.
He says there must be no vengeance for it will achieve nothing, but there have been some eruptions that may be warning signals. Such as when he wagged a belligerent finger at a TV reporter who dared asked him to comment on Schabir Shaik's release from prison, while a bodyguard slapped the microphone out of her hand; and the way he ranted against the Constitutional Court and other judicial institutions in an interview with The Star.
Then there are his supporters, including senior members of the ANC, howling for the blood of his perceived persecutors. Even if Zuma can control his own bitterness, can he control theirs? Mondli Makhanya, editor of the Sunday Times, has expressed the fear that this bloodlust may see "the victors chase the vanquished into the caves and forests and hunt them until there is not one left standing".
A little flamboyant perhaps, but a valid fear nonetheless.
Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail and a veteran political analyst.