The Yin and Yang of the ANC

The author of Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography claims that it is a "rough coincidence" that the book which finally lifts the veil on the enigma that is South Africa's deputy president is being released to coincide with the nominations process in the ANC. Ebrahim Harvey, whose book is being launched Thursday, said it's a "fundamental misconception" that it was timed to elucidate Motlanthe's political and personal life in the heat of discussions about whether he would make a good president.

Harvey told City Press it took three years to research and write the book, and said he spent more than 180 hours interviewing Motlanthe. Weekend papers reported widely on the book, which for the first time gives the public an insight into Motlanthe's thoughts during the 2005 crisis in the ANC when former President Thabo Mbeki fired his then-deputy, Jacob Zuma, as well as his assessment of events in the ruling party post-Polokwane. It also records Motlanthe's disappointment with Zuma's governance.

Most surprising though is a glance into Motlanthe's private life, including the affair his wife had while he was imprisoned on Robben Island. While the story is well known in senior ANC circles, including his embracing of a child born out of the affair as his own, it is rarely spoken about. Motlanthe has earned much respect among his peers for his handling of the matter, and only filed for divorce two years ago after his romance with businesswoman Gugu Mtshali began.

Motlanthe's supporters are soaking up the book as a welcome boon to their campaign to challenge Zuma for the ANC presidency at the ANC's 53rd national conference in Mangaung in December. Since Motlanthe has been non-committal up to now about whether he will accept nomination, the biography is the best indication yet that will take on Zuma.

It reveals that he differs with the rest of the ANC leadership on a number of issues, including the expulsion of former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, the recall of Mbeki and the attacks on the judiciary. The book says Motlanthe had hoped Zuma's leadership "would once and for all settle several major problems afflicting the party and government", but that this did not happen.

It is a timely revelation that comes at a time when the Zuma administration is floundering in yet another bout of bad publicity. Media reports last week that a revamp to his Nkandla compound would cost the taxpayer between R203-million and R238-million continues to dominate public discourse. An attempt by Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi to quell the outrage backfired, drawing further negative publicity due to his refusal to provide details of the cost. Nxesi's claim that all former South Africa presidents received similar benefits from the state has been shown to be untrue.

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela confirmed this weekend that she is investigating the state expenditure on the upgrade of Zuma's rural homestead. A trail of Public Works documents obtained by the media shows how state funds budgeted for the Nkandla upgrade ballooned from R5.7-million to more than R200-million. (Two weeks ago, Madonsela cleared Motlanthe and Mtshali of improper conduct relating to an Iranian arms deal.)

Zuma's office has been unwilling to communicate on the issue. Initial claims by spokesman Mac Maharaj that the home had to be revamped to accommodate visiting guests and other heads of state has not been backed up by any evidence that Zuma hosts such visitors at Nkandla instead of at the official presidential residences in Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.

Adding to Zuma's PR woes was the ruling by the Constitutional Court this week that the appointment of Menzi Simelane as director of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was invalid. The court's ruling was damning on the judgment of Zuma and Justice Minister Jeff Radebe as "irrational". It is the latest in a series of high profile appointments by Zuma which turned out to be embarrassing disasters.

Zuma will now be under pressure to appoint a new head of the NPA who will be both above reproach and mindful not to upset the political applecart. With high profile prosecutions such as Malema's underway, whoever is appointed would be under immense pressure not to embarrass government further.

As Daily Maverick has pointed out before, it remains to be seen whether these scandals and bad publicity sway sentiment against Zuma in the ANC. So far, the nominations process in the provinces and leagues has been rolling out quite predictably, with no surprises based on current events.

The Youth League and Limpopo have, as to be expected, backed Motlanthe for president, while the Women's League and Mpumalanga have come out in support of Zuma. The North West, one of the swing provinces, has also stated that it supports Zuma, but the province is heavily divided and may end up voting contrary to the provincial leadership's pronouncements.

Gauteng is the most recent province to pronounce on its leadership preferences. The provincial General Council decided Sunday to nominate Motlanthe as president but, like most other ANC structures, cannot make a firm decision on the other positions. It recommended both Tokyo Sexwale and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for deputy president, Joel Netshitenzhe and Gwede Mantashe for secretary-general, and Thandi Modise and Naledi Pandor for national chairwoman.

However, the provincial council unanimously nominated Febe Potgieter-Gqubule as deputy secretary-general and Gauteng leader Paul Mashatile as treasurer-general. Mashatile said the nominations were not final and ANC members in his province were now free to campaign and lobby for their preferred candidates.

All eyes will remain on the Gauteng ANC leadership to see how they respond to a meeting with their counterparts from KwaZulu-Natal on a possible pre-Mangaung deal. The meeting is apparently at the initiative of the KZN leaders in the Zuma stronghold who seem to be jittery now about the prospect of the president and Motlanthe going head-to-head.

They reportedly want to broker an agreement with Gauteng to allow Zuma to stand unopposed and for Motlanthe to remain his deputy, on the understanding that he takes over the state presidency in 2014.

With none of the slates in any of the ANC structures set in stone, there is still room for the playmakers to manoeuvre and negotiate. If there were to be a pre-Mangaung deal, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng would make it.

While leaders in both provinces confirm the meeting, it is not yet known when it will take place and what each would put on the table. And while KwaZulu-Natal probably has the broad consent of Zuma to negotiate a deal, Gauteng would still have to talk Motlanthe and other ANC structures into such an arrangement, should they forge agreement.

Right now, Zuma and Motlanthe represent diverse sentiments in the ANC which could either end in a happy arrangement for all or an almighty battle in two months. It's difficult to say who would want the deal more at this stage - Zuma with his dreadful leadership track record or Motlanthe with his desire to avoid a messy scrap and keep his image squeaky clean.

It's best not to place any money on this battle just yet.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.