AS A young man at university, Ta-Nehisi Coates came across a story that has stuck with him ever since. It was about Queen Nzinga, who for several decades in the 17th century, ruled a swathe of what today is Angola.

“I read about (Nzinga) negotiating with the Dutch,” Coates writes in his book Between the World and Me.

“When the Dutch ambassador tried to humiliate her by refusing her a seat, Nzinga had shown her power by ordering one of her advisers to all fours to make a human chair for her body.”

At first, Coates liked the tale very much. “That was the kind of power I sought,” he writes. “My working theory back then held all black people as kings in exile, a nation of original men severed from our original culture ….”

When he came across the same tale again a little later, Coates was no longer so sure. This time, “the story of Nzinga conducting negotiations on the woman’s back … hit me like a sucker punch: among the people in that room, all those centuries ago, my body … was not closest to the queen’s but to her adviser’s, who’d been broken down into a chair so that the queen, heir to everything she’d ever seen, could sit.”

The story, I think, is a good analogue for what President Jacob Zuma has done, and for why the sort of people who read this newspaper are puzzled that the African National Congress (ANC) doesn’t just get rid of him.

Like Queen Nzinga, Zuma wants a place at the high table. Only, it is not just European ambassadors alongside whom he’d like to sit. He wants equality with the people who for a century have formed the ANC’s aristocracy: genteel black South Africans, all of them cosmopolitan, with airs and graces and university degrees obtained from abroad — the John Dubes, the AB Xumas, the Thabo Mbekis.

Those in the ANC who got rich and powerful immediately after the transition to democracy were in large part drawn from the ranks of the polished, the educated and the cosmopolitan — Cyril Ramaphosa, for instance, Saki Macozoma, Patrice Motsepe. The sort of people who wielded influence when the ANC was a liberation movement now get rich when it is in government.

What Zuma wants, I think, is power and wealth, not just for himself and his family, but for a particular kind of person, long associated with the ANC but under-represented at its apex: the sort who is not especially well-educated, has a strong base in a small town or a patch of rural SA and is considered by the old blueblood elite to be somewhat raw.

This is Zuma’s project and he conducts it by sitting on the backs of his own people because it is ruining the institutions that might secure SA’s prosperity. A swathe of small-town elites might get to sit at the high table, but their bums rest on the backs of generations not yet born.

Why does the ANC not simply throw Zuma out? Perhaps because for many in the organisation, he appears to be righting a wrong. Zuma’s clients in provincial SA are what Americans used to call pork-barrel politicians. In exchange for supporting Zuma, they get free rein to run provincial and local governments. The largesse they dish out runs deep: they can secure one a job even at the lowest rungs of the public service or a tender for the most modest business. They thus hold in their hands the promise of upward mobility for a large chunk of the small-town population. When the recipients of this largesse hear people like me say Zuma is sitting on their backs, they grow suspicious. For them, Zuma is transferring power and prosperity to the provinces. He is interested in them in ways the likes of Mbeki are not. He is reorientating the ANC and making it more just.

My point is an unfashionable one. It is to suggest that Zuma is still in power not just because he is wily and clever, but because he is winning a battle of ideas in the ANC’s heartland. Until small-town SA sees in him Queen Nzinga, a royal personage sitting on their backs, his power will remain.

• Steinberg teaches African studies at Oxford University and is a visiting professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research