With the current leadership crisis/handover/coup under way in Zimbabwe, it was only a matter of time before some of our own politicians started to make comparisons. Despite important differences between our societies, there is something about the political zeitgeist that is shared by both countries that people simply can’t resist. On Tuesday news broke that the ANC’s chief whip Jackson Mthembu had told Reuters that no matter who wins the ANC’s elective conference, President Jacob Zuma must be removed from office. And he said that South Africa needs to learn a lesson from Zimbabwe where “they call that bloodless corrections”. Mthembu is raising the stakes, sending a message, and painting a very particular picture.

Jackson Mthembu has been one of the figureheads of the anti-Zuma movement within the ANC. Despite his position as the man who has to push/cajole/force ANC MPs into voting to retain Zuma as President, he has also said that the entire leadership of the ANC should step down. Somehow, Mthembu being Mthembu, he has managed this duality fairly well, But, speaking to local media organisations in a carefully choreographed way is one thing, speaking directly to Reuters is something else. And, coming so close to the ANC’s conference, it is clear that he is up to something.

Mthembu appears to be deliberately raising the stakes. He is making it crystal clear that for him, and the Cyril Ramaphosa camp that he supports, the conference is about nothing less than the removal of Zuma. This means Zuma has yet more incentive to try to prevent Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma from losing the battle. Thus, he could be more tempted than ever to “play dirty”, leading to some of the more cynical scenarios coming into play – of the conference being collapsed, and of the result being disputed endlessly in court room after court room. (At the same time, it was Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana who observed in the City Press over the weekend that a collapsed conference is unlikely. His reasoning, which is probably correct, is that Zuma would need both Ace Magashule and Sihle Zikalala to help him do that, and both would know the ANC would cease to exist if the conference collapsed, thus their power would disappear too).

So then, this would appear to be a risk for a person who clearly wants Ramaphosa to win. But, as other analysts have pointed out, it is also important to give those who are still thinking of backing Ramaphosa a reason to support him. And the reason is simply to get rid of Zuma.

The message from Mthembu is straightforward: “Back Ramaphosa, and you’ll end the nightmare of Zuma, and so save the ANC in the process.”

It’s important to remember that Mthembu is not the first person to say this. Pravin Gordhan, the former finance minister, has said it before. And last week he followed up by warning that some people “will be arrested” after the ANC’s conference.

So, where does Zimbabwe sit in all of this?

We are not Zimbabwe. We are a multi-class society, with many centres of power. One of the funniest tweets in the aftermath of the coup-that-is-not-a -coup last week came from a person who observed that the military here would not know which broadcaster to take over, the SABC or ANN7. The line goes straight to the point that there are many centres of power in South Africa, and if you wanted to take over communications you would have to somehow control dozens of points, and still could not be certain of success.

At the same time, it almost wouldn’t matter, because information in South Africa moves quickly and fairly freely over the internet. In short, unless someone was able to block Twitter and Facebook, or switch off the entire internet, information would still flow. Which would make it impossible to stop people from organising. And of course, our military is not nearly as homogeneous as Zimbabwe’s. Our soldiers are unionised (and have appeared to rebel on at least one occasion), and crucially, our officers are not politicised in the way that Zimbabwe’s are.

What is important from Zimbabwe is the lesson it gives in how quickly the political winds can change. Just two weeks ago members of Zanu-PF were cheering the expulsion of Emmerson Mnangagwa from the party. Now, they’re cheering the expulsion of Robert Mugabe and his extension-cord wife.

This has echoes of what happened in South Africa in 2008. Up until December 2007 Thabo Mbeki seemed to rule the roost with very little opposition. So strong was he that he was able to deny antiretrovirals to millions of people who needed them. But, once the power grip was broken, he was turfed out. It took eight months back then, and just two weeks in Zimbabwe. Mthembu is surely suggesting that if the power of Zuma is broken at the ANC’s conference, then he too should be turfed out.

So how will it be done? While many would point to the 2008 example of how the ANC’s national executive committee voted for Mbeki to go, that probably would not be appropriate here. Instead, on Mthembu’s scenario, the conference would actually be sitting when it elected Ramaphosa party leader. Those same delegates would surely, if asked to vote, also say that Zuma should be removed as president. And the NEC is only the highest decision-making body “between conferences”. That gathering would outrank the NEC. And that would be the quickest and cleanest way to do things. Surely even Zuma could not survive a resolution of an ANC conference.

It may seem as if Mthembu has ignored the distinction between political science-fiction and fantasy. It’s all well and good to pontificate about “what if” Ramaphosa wins, but he hasn’t yet, and Dlamini Zuma still could. But the evidence is mounting that Ramaphosa is in the lead. On Tuesday the Institute for Race Relations published a careful piece of analysis that suggests Ramaphosa has a significant lead in the nominations process. The institute is careful to point out, numerous times, that hard figures are impossible to come by. So, like so many others in the commentariat, the evidence points to a Ramaphosa victory, but experience warns us not to bet against Zuma.

Coupled to this, and directly related to Mthembu, is a strange non-action. Just as he and people like Derek Hanekom have stepped up their criticism of Zuma, so Zuma has appeared almost powerless to act against them. At one point, it was claimed that Hanekom would be removed from the position of chair of the National Disciplinary Committee because of his public comments. But in fact, nothing has happened. As nothing has happened to Mthembu and others. This adds to the evidence that the tide is moving against Zuma.

While it is still impossible to make hard and fast predictions in the ANC’s race, what is clear is that the stakes are rising. For both sides, it’s make or break time. And that means tensions will rise, leading to strange and complicated events. It also means people on all sides could make mistakes as the unbelievable pressure on them starts to show. We are now just 24 days away from the start of the conference. It is only then that we will know if the centre will in fact hold.

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