Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

It is the 80th birthday celebration of deputy international relations minister Ebrahim Ebrahim, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — a lone, uncharismatic figure — is sitting at a table at the front of the swish Melrose Arch venue, surrounded by aides. The table to her right seats ex-president Kgalema Motlanthe, stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the Ebrahim family. At the table to her left is ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, who addresses the event on behalf of the party.

But it is clear the 68-year-old Dlamini-Zuma is on her own as she departs the gathering, turning on journalists who approach her for comment by saying it is a “private function” and that she won’t answer questions — especially not about her candidacy to succeed her ex-husband Jacob Zuma as president.

The birthday bash takes place a day after the start of the ANC policy conference, where Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign to lead the ANC is faltering.

While her backers say they remain confident that the former, undistinguished, chair of the African Union (AU) commission is a favourite for the post, she seemed curiously isolated at the conference. She certainly did not set things alight, and a rival female candidate rose to stake her claim. Baleka Mbete, ANC chair and the speaker of parliament, made it clear she, too, was eyeing the top post on a gender ticket.

And for all their confidence in her, Dlamini-Zuma’s backers are well aware of the harm that the rolling scandals attached to Zuma could do to her campaign. This is why, among the first interviews she gave, was an anguished declaration that she was her “own person”. That may well have been true of her tenure in government, where she served as minister of health, of foreign affairs and of home affairs before her “exile” at the AU.

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Supporters cite her facing down of the tobacco industry as an example of her independence. Yet Dlamini-Zuma made little impact in the conference policy discussions. Her supporters flooded the economic transformation commission but she failed to impress on the hot-button issues of “white monopoly capital” and land expropriation. She is dull.

Dlamini-Zuma has said she will accept nomination for the ANC presidency when the process formally opens in September. “I feel very honoured and very humbled and of course the greater part of my life has been of service to the people of SA, to our organisation, the ANC, so there is no way I can refuse a responsibility given by the ANC. I accept the nomination,” she declared in her Peter Mokaba memorial lecture last month.

She was first endorsed, by the ANC Women’s League, in January. But her campaign since then has not so much fizzled as failed to ignite. Zuma allies are still divided over her candidacy. Some women’s league leaders say she was imposed on them and that Mbete would be better.

The so-called “premier league” of Zuma diehards were also not completely convinced and were exploring options. Zuma himself is unwavering and publicly backed her at a prayer meeting last month. For this he was admonished by the ANC national executive committee.

And for all their confidence in her, Dlamini-Zuma’s backers are well aware of the harm that the rolling scandals attached to Zuma could do to her campaign

Dlamini-Zuma, meanwhile, has been crisscrossing SA to deliver her campaign message, centred on radical economic transformation.

So what are the numbers saying? The ANC Youth League, party kingmakers historically, last month threw its shrinking weight behind her. A source in the Eastern Cape, the ANC’s second-largest province, says she commands 65% of branch support there. But deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s backers also claim he has the region’s majority. The provincial elective conference, to take place within months, should settle the matter.

The largest ANC province, KwaZulu Natal, is deeply divided but Zuma’s backers will probably prevail and back Dlamini-Zuma. That’s unless a legal challenge to provincial leader Sihle Zikalala’s 2015 election is revived and succeeds before December.

Free State is said to be solidly in favour of Dlamini-Zuma but Mpumalanga chair David Mabuza is one who hedges his bets, based on which camp best suits his ambition to become ANC deputy president.

Northern Cape, Gauteng and the Western Cape are lost to Dlamini-Zuma — even though they are not numerically strong enough to lose her the vote unless divisions in her camp widen. She has appealed to the ANCYL to convince branches to back her in December, an indication of uncertainty.

Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign is intrinsically tied to Zuma. Ramaphosa, on the other hand, has fashioned his campaign on renewal of the ANC, fixing the economy and stemming the tide of corruption. At a recent rally ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe urged the youth wing to elect leaders who give people hope, not those under whom
“looting continues”. He seems to be pro-Ramaphosa, despite attempts by Dlamini-Zuma’s group to woo him.

Another complication for Dlamini-Zuma could involve calls for younger leaders — like finance minister Malusi Gigaba and police minister Fikile Mbalula — to step forward. Neither thus far is on a slate for either faction, but Mbalula’s name is being bandied about by Mbete supporters. Last month he tweeted that Dlamini-Zuma’s candidate for secretary-general, Ace Magashule, was not up to it, and that ANC Gauteng deputy chair David Makhura would be better.

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