Motlanthe vs Ramaphosa

For years to come, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe's Mangaung game-plan will be analysed, and it will always be wondered whether he could have trounced President Jacob Zuma had he not concealed himself behind the ANC's election procedures. But Motlanthe was determined that he would not engage in any campaigning whatsoever, and effectively went to ground as the Mangaung battle reached its height in the week of the nomination conferences.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the man who left active politics in a huff in the mid-90s after being outmanoeuvred by Thabo Mbeki for the position of Nelson Mandela's heir, is now on the brink of a comeback - if he wants it. Ramaphosa built a formidable business empire and has resisted all previous attempts to draw him back into the ANC leadership, indicating he would only return if he were not contested.

The stars might just have lined up for Ramaphosa, now that Motlanthe's anti-campaign resulted in a negative vote from Zuma's supporters. KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma's support base, pronounced the line on Sunday by nominating Ramaphosa for the position of ANC deputy president and in an almost synchronised manoeuvre, the president's other strongholds followed suit.

Zuma's lobbyists became frustrated with Motlanthe's reluctance to engage with them and to agree to a no-contest deal for the presidency. Motlanthe has stuck to his guns publicly and behind-the-scenes that he will only make his intentions clear after the branches pronounce their leadership preferences. This has caused mass confusion throughout the country, with many ANC members doubting whether Motlanthe would have the mettle to take on Zuma so late in the game.

While Zuma's supporters had a clear campaign, those opposed to his re-election were unsure until this week whether Motlanthe would dump them at the last minute and fall in line as the number two on the Zuma ticket. But Zuma's lobbyists decided to pull the rug from under Motlanthe and begun a fevered last-minute campaign to push Ramaphosa for the deputy president position.

By Friday morning, Zuma has been nominated for re-election by KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, Mpumalanga, the ANC Women's League and the ANC Veteran's League. Gauteng and the ANC Youth League have nominated Motlanthe, with Limpopo, the other champion of the Forces of Change ticket, expected to also line up behind the deputy president.

But in order for the Forces of Change to have had any chance of unseating Zuma, they needed to have unanimous support for Motlanthe. Apart from the youth league, this did not happen. In Gauteng, the leading force advocating for change, Motlanthe beat Zuma by 238 votes to 173. This means Zuma received 42% of the vote in Motlanthe's most influential stronghold. While Limpopo's leadership has also led the charge for Zuma to be ousted, the president also has significant support in the province.

The only way the Forces of Change could stand a reasonable chance of removing Zuma is if the Eastern Cape comes out in huge numbers behind Motlanthe. Earlier in the week, this looked probable when the biggest region, OR Tambo, emerged with unanimous support for Motlanthe. Zuma was not nominated for any position. On Thursday night, the Eastern Cape nominations conference ran aground after the provincial executive committee (PEC) questioned the OR Tambo results, calling it "suspect". The province's nomination's conference was due to resume on Friday morning.

The Eastern Cape's PEC has backed Zuma's re-election while the regions have been defying the line of the provincial leadership by coming out in support of Motlanthe. With the province so fractured, it is unlikely that it will produce the requisite numbers for Motlanthe to make up the votes already delivered to Zuma by his strongholds.

The focus now shifts to the position of deputy president. Motlanthe has so far not been nominated by any province or league to retain his current position, and with his chances of beating Zuma diminishing by the minute, there is now a likelihood that he could be left out of the Top Six altogether. His supporters have not been able to deliver him a back-up plan for the position of deputy president because this would make them look unsure about his candidacy for president.

It is not known whether Ramaphosa consented to his name being put forward for the position of deputy president or whether he will oblige the Zuma camp by accepting the nomination. If he does so, he will probably want a guarantee from the Zuma camp that they will support his ascendency to the head of state in 2014 or be the anointed successor at the next ANC conference in 2017.

With Zuma's currency at an all-time low and doubts over whether he will manage to serve out his term, his lobbyists will probably accede to such an arrangement with Ramaphosa. But even this might not be enough to draw Ramaphosa away from his business empire. Depending on whether Motlanthe throws in the towel completely after Mangaung if he is ousted from the ANC Top Six, Ramaphosa might have to step into his shoes and take on his ceremonial position in the state and in Parliament. This will also give Ramaphosa a bridging period between the business world and taking over the reins of power.

Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa are also in the mix for the position of deputy president after receiving the Gauteng and ANC Youth League nominations respectively. Baleka Mbete has been nominated by the Free State for the position of deputy president but this is unlikely to have further resonance.

Sexwale received 211 votes to Ramaphosa's 175 in Gauteng for the position of deputy president, while the ANCYL has backed him for the position of national treasurer. KwaZulu-Natal premier Zweli Mkhize is however gaining ground for the position of treasurer, receiving nominations from all the Zuma strongholds. From their side, Gauteng has nominated its chairman Paul Mashatile for the position.

Gwede Mantashe is the overall favourite to retain his position as secretary general. He even received the backing of Gauteng on Friday morning, handily defeating the only likely challenger Fikile Mbalula by 249 votes to 148.

The battle of Mangaung reaches a climax next week when the ANC's electoral commission will collate all the nominations and ask the nominees whether they accept candidacy. Only then will Motlanthe's position become apparent, but the game might be too far ahead of him by then.

But all is not lost for Motlanthe. While his unfaltering discipline might have annoyed both the Zuma camp and his own supporters, he is still universally respected and has built an iconic legacy in the ANC. Nobody wants to see him fall on his face. Ramaphosa was drawn in by Zuma lobbyists as the devil's advocate but his candidacy caught fire because of Motlanthe's unwillingness to get off the starting blocks. The Zuma camp is patently aware that they face an uphill battle, particularly from the Left, to sell Ramaphosa as the heir apparent.

Even at this late stage, the status quo ticket is still the most desirable outcome across camps. It could still happen. Ramaphosa might back off or Motlanthe could be nominated as deputy president from the floor of the conference. And so the battle for the position of deputy president is essentially new Mangaung's frontier.

After an epic battle fought hard in every branch around the country, Mangaung might still have a poetic end for Motlanthe, if not for South Africa.

Zuma's embattled and divisive presidency... rambles on.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.