[OPINION] Finding a place on the slate may prove difficult for Lindiwe Sisulu

Over the weekend Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu officially “launched” her campaign to take over from President Jacob Zuma as the leader of the ANC. It is a campaign that marks a serious change from what we’ve seen in the party before. She appears to be confident of her chances, and seems to be proclaiming that she wants the Number One spot. But, despite her political career and achievements, there are numerous political problems in her path. Foremost among them is the political traffic jam at the top of the “Anti-Zuma” slate that is being assembled for December.

Lindiwe Sisulu is nothing if not forthright. She’s never been afraid of an argument, and is happy to jump in and explain her view. Sisulu has also achieved something that many in top positions in the ANC have failed to do – she has never been accused of taking money for herself corruptly. Although, the DA’s David Maynier would no doubt point to her use of private planes while Defence Minister shows that she is not above corruption. Sisulu has also never appeared to be a part of any one main faction within the ANC. She is not an automatic “Mbeki-ite” and has never been that close to the Zuma faction. She has managed to hold herself almost above it all. There are very few people who have managed to do that and are still in Cabinet.

Over the last few months, what has become clearer is not what she is for, but rather what she is against. And she is obviously against corruption, Zuma and the Guptas, and the abuse of power. This may mean that what she is “for” is good governance and a return to what some call the “traditional values” of the ANC. This may mean that what has really forced her off her fence is the way that Zuma has governed. She simply cannot take it anymore, and feels a burning need to do something.

However, the history of ANC campaigns suggests that those who use official campaign launches generally lose. This is simply not the way to campaign in the ANC.

In some ways, the campaign of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has been a masterclass in how to campaign without being seen to break the letter of the ANC’s rules on the subject. There’s been no media launch for him, no set-piece event. Instead there was the long wait until the removal of Pravin Gordhan from the Finance Ministry, and then the pointed statements and almost fiery speeches. Of course it’s all organised, there is much choreography at work here. You don’t get to stand up and tell the SACP’s national conference that the Guptas are running the country without planning it all first. But, the key point is that he is campaigning, while not breaking the rules. Sisulu may find herself, strictly speaking, on the wrong side of those rules.

But can Sisulu prevail, and actually beat both Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa? On the evidence we have, this seems very unlikely.

On Sunday her campaign shared with the Sunday Times the results of a poll her people had conducted. This survey was structured in an interesting way, with half of the 2,400 people questioned being ANC members. Presumably the idea was to get a sort of cross-section of opinion. From this poll Sisulu gets the support of just 7% of the people surveyed. Which makes her chances of winning the ANC’s December contest about as high as Julius Malema’s chances of being President in 2019.

It is for this reason that the Sunday Times decided to present the poll’s results by leading with the data that 42.6% of those asked thought Ramaphosa should be the next leader of the ANC. But the staggering figure was the support for Dlamini-Zuma, at just 21.4% – far lower than anyone could have predicted. Of course, there is plenty to ask about this – what was the urban/rural split of this poll, was there a provincial weighting to accommodate the different provincial standings that will be expressed in December? These factors matter hugely, but as yet we don’t know the answers to these questions. Still, this could be an indication of the real trouble Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign may be in. She does not appear to be making much headway, and, considering the factional nature of her campaign, we should not be surprised. Dlamini-Zuma seems to have deliberately avoided the centre ground, both of the ANC and our politics as a whole. And the fact that she simply cannot, at this point, disassociate herself from her ex-husband and the #GuptaLeaks means she has severe weaknesses.

Last year Business Day published a report from Gwede Mantashe’s office suggesting that many branches and regions of the ANC wanted the entire national executive committee to resign. That led to suggestions that perhaps Zuma was really being propped up by structures like the provinces and the NEC, and that if ordinary members were to have their say, he would be out of power. This poll may serve as more evidence of this.

If we take all of this information into account we may find that Sisulu actually has a different aim altogether. She may in fact be pushing for the position of deputy leader of the ANC, she wants to gather what support she can now, for the inevitable negotiations that lie ahead. Of course, for this to succeed, she would have to officially deny that this is her strategy, at least for the moment.

The problem is, it really does now appear, even based on the evidence of her own survey, that only Ramaphosa can beat Dlamini-Zuma, which means that she has to join forces with him. But that is a slate that is looking a little crowded by now. While we don’t know for sure just yet who is on it, a Ramaphosa slate would probably have to include Mantashe, Zweli Mkhize and someone like Gauteng’s David Makhura. While there is space there for Sisulu, the number two spot which might be her real aim is probably going to be taken by either Mkhize or Mantashe. Which makes it a little difficult to put her there, considering that Ramaphosa probably needs both of them in order to win.

That said, there is an important issue of gender to consider. Tricky, because it would surely be wrong to say that someone should be accommodated on a slate just because they are a woman, and yet it would also be wrong to have an entirely male slate. Ramaphosa’s side might find that they have very few female ANC leaders to choose from, placing Sisulu in a strong negotiating position.

Sisulu’s entrance into the leadership race makes things in the ANC even harder to predict. What we know is that there is going to be horse-trading, and that this will be even more complicated than we thought. It may go down to the real aims of those involved – do they want to be President or (on their version) do they want to save the ANC by making sure Dlamini-Zuma is not its next leader? Sisulu probably can’t have it both ways. She can possibly help make sure Dlamini-Zuma doesn’t win, but not by running her own presidential campaign at the same time.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter:@StephenGrootes