Julius Malema. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Julius Malema. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

He may play the fool at times, but don’t be duped: Julius Malema is a masterful politician. The EFF’s decision to support the DA in the hung municipal councils of Tshwane and Johannesburg, while refusing to enter a formal coalition, was a stroke of genius.

For a start, it gives the EFF effective power without formal responsibility. It also ushers in an era of real politics, as there will now be genuine contestation over resources in SA’s economic heartland. It may not be pretty to watch, but it will certainly make our democracy more robust.

It’s no secret: the DA and the EFF are on different planets when it comes to ideology. But in this case, your enemy’s enemy is your friend. At a deftly handled press conference in Alexandra last week, Malema explained (and he has a gift for exposition) that his party will support the DA, which he says is the lesser of two devils, while remaining in opposition.

Of course, the EFF will extract a price for that support, especially when it comes to voting on the budget.

As an example, Malema says the EFF will not tolerate the creation of more bicycle lanes in Johannesburg. He argues, rightly, that the city does not have a bicycle culture — has anyone ever seen a bicycle in those dedicated lanes in the heart of Sandton? — and that the money would be better spent on the poor. It may seem an innocuous example, symptomatic of the early days of a honeymoon, but the implication is clear: the DA will need to become more sensitive to the unemployed and marginalised than the ANC administration of Johannesburg was.

The Jo’burg partnership will work — if the DA can root out corruption and improve services and billing. There’s lots to fix, after all: the Rea Vaya buses are hardly ever spotted, Pikitup seems to be perpetually on strike and the roads are a mess.

But Malema knows he cannot hold the DA to ransom on every issue, or he will be seen as obstructive. The new, overhauled and slimline Malema is also more practical in his pronouncements.

He speaks of companies giving shares to workers, similar to the German model. Employees, he says, will then have a stake in the business, adding to their annual 13th cheque a 14th cheque — "the dividends".

This is hardly the talk of the hard Left. Sure, the EFF’s wild national policies on land and nationalisation remain in place — but they have achieved no traction with the electorate, as shown by the EFF’s meagre 8% of the vote (6% in 2014). Malema knows this.

As for the fears that council chambers will soon witness chaotic scenes like those in parliament, when EFF MPs prevented President Jacob Zuma from speaking, Malema is soothing. The protests were entirely to do with Zuma, he says, and will not be replicated at municipal level.

In any case, the EFF’s frustration at Zuma’s refusal to respond to Thuli Madonsela’s report on Nkandla, and speaker Baleka Mbete’s insistence on protecting him, was shared by other opposition parties and by many outside parliament. Malema also knows how to pick his battles.

At the bottom line, this all suggests the 22-year ideological and racial logjam of party politics is beginning to splinter, and the emphasis is shifting to the practicalities of administration. In a strange inversion from the norm, we can now expect municipal politics to provide the lead.

After the elections of 2014, the writing on the wall should have been clear to the ANC. It should have moved to prevent the previously unthinkable: its loss of power in the economic heart of the country, housing nearly a quarter of SA’s people and the seedbed of future prosperity. It failed to do so — and remains in denial. It is riven with factions and led by an electoral liability who retains substantial patronage capacity.

As for the DA, it has finally refuted the allegation that it is a party of minorities only, and that black Africans will not vote for it in meaningful numbers. You cannot achieve 27% of the national vote without attracting voters beyond the minorities.

The environment for party politics has changed suddenly, and substantially. The DA, EFF and many smaller parties have shown they can respond and adapt. The ANC has not. Perhaps it cannot.