Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

"Unity" is destined to be the most overused word in the ANC over the next three months‚ and possibly the most potent campaign tool, as a surprise realignment takes shape.

The term unity is, of course, relative to what every faction wants it to be.

The prospect of party unity already serves as the pretext to get ANC members to rally behind President Jacob Zuma‚ the presidential candidates and factional interests.

But now it could define who wins the ANC’s December elective conference.

Over the past few weeks‚ ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize has changed the game by presenting himself as the most rational choice for president as a "unity candidate".

For an organisation at war with itself‚ a candidate who could fuse factions and prevent a likely split seems to be gaining traction in ANC structures.

So far‚ Mkhize appears to be the only candidate in the field who could possibly bridge the two main factions aligned to Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma‚ and gain support from both camps.

A development at the weekend in Mpumalanga has given the unity ticket a fighting chance.

What used to be known as the "premier league"‚ comprising the leaders of the Free State‚ North West and Mpumalanga‚ has mutated into a new organism, commanding control of at least half the delegates at the ANC’s December elective conference.

The premiers of these three provinces — Ace Magashule‚ Supra Mahumapelo and David Mabuza — were initially the key players behind Zuma. Together with KwaZulu-Natal (once Sihle Zikalala took over as chairperson)‚ the ANC Women’s League and ANC Youth League‚ they were to provide the muscle behind Dlamini-Zuma’s election campaign.

The strength and numbers of this voting bloc would have ensured an easy win for Dlamini-Zuma.

This is no longer the case.

Mabuza pulled his province out of the sect and is playing dealmaker for a unity ticket. With KwaZulu-Natal split into two factions‚ Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign is faltering further.

Magashule has been hedging his bets since he failed to secure a firm commitment from Dlamini-Zuma as to where he would feature on her slate. He is also facing a strong challenge from within his fiefdom for the first time.

The ANC in Gauteng has been lying low‚ not assuming its usual preconference role of playmaker. It was expected that Gauteng would be the front-line campaigners for Ramaphosa.

But compared to the role Gauteng played in campaigning for Kgalema Motlanthe in 2012‚ it is clear the chairperson‚ Paul Mashatile‚ is holding back.

Recent bilateral meetings between Gauteng and other provinces‚ including Limpopo and Mpumalanga‚ gave an indication that a manoeuvre was in the works.

On Saturday it revealed itself. Mabuza‚ Mashatile‚ Mahumapelo and Magashule‚ together with the hitherto KwaZulu-Natal deputy leader Willies Mchunu (the Pietermaritzburg High Court nullified KwaZulu-Natal’s leadership positions last week)‚ all appeared together on a platform at the Mpumalanga provincial general council in Mbombela.

They are preaching a singular message: party unity.

Mashatile explained in an interview on 702 on Monday morning that they were trying to negotiate a way out of the factional warfare by presenting a single slate of leaders to the delegates at the December conference.

So instead of Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma in an epic showdown‚ they want one of them to step aside, or a "third-way" candidate to represent the two main camps.

This would really be a "one-way" ticket‚ Mashatile said.

He also said some of the other provincial leaders were coming on board with this line of thinking but were not available to attend the Mbombela meeting.

Of course this does not mean there is a singular new bloc behind a unity ticket. KwaZulu-Natal is obviously unable to commit to anything or anyone until there is some certainty about who runs the province.

Magashule and Mahumapelo are still looking for the camp that best represents their interests. And Mabuza and Mashatile see this power play as a means to ensure their elevation to top six (or whatever it is extended to) positions.

What remains unclear is who would be top of this "unity" ticket. Would it be the person already campaigning as the unity candidate or one of the top two contenders?

In the case of the latter‚ would either Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma be willing to stand down their campaigns at this stage with so many vested interests behind them?

But their chances of being elected are minimal without the provincial leaders bringing the voting muscle. So while this is a late play by the provincial leaders‚ they know they have leverage and that this realignment could decide the outcome of the conference.

They are scouting for the best deal. Whichever candidate clinches it could win.

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