The ANC’s make-or-break election race to succeed Jacob Zuma as president is billed as an epic battle between good and bad, but in politics there is perhaps no such thing. Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, with his nose in front a week before the ruling party’s crucial congress kicks off on December 16, may end up as Hillary Clinton to his chief rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s Donald Trump.

Ramaphosa has received the majority of the party’s consolidated branch nominations, but it is far from over. The former union leader turned business mogul, favoured by Nelson Mandela to succeed him, looks set to take it — but only if we assume there will be no mass bribing of delegates or other skulduggery to make them deviate from their branch mandates when they cast their ballots at Nasrec, Johannesburg.

As in the US election, there is the danger that neither candidate will be able to inspire confidence among the general population

Also rippling beneath the surface is a sense that, as with the US poll, neither candidate inspires the confidence SA needs to restore growth and good governance after a decade of corruption, mismanagement and state-enterprise capture under Zuma — the most serious threat to the country’s young democracy, and nemesis of a once-proud liberation movement.

Ramaphosa put up an impressive showing in the branch nominations, far exceeding even his own camp’s expectations.

As things stand, he has 1,860 of the branch nominations to Dlamini-Zuma’s 1,358, and the majority in five of the nine provincial executive committees (PECs), to Dlamini-Zuma’s lead in four.

The ANC Youth League, Women’s League and Veterans League as well as its national executive committee (NEC) and the PECs will also nominate their preferred candidates. The leagues bring 60 delegates each to the conference, the NEC 86 and the PECs 27 from each of the nine provinces.

Dlamini-Zuma is likely to get the bulk of the vote from the women’s and youth leagues, while Ramaphosa is in the lead in the veterans league. The NEC seems likely to be split nearly evenly between the two.

In reality what will count is how they and the branch delegates vote on the day. Will they stick to their mandated choices or change their minds in the final hour to shift the balance in Dlamini-Zuma’s favour?

An element that also could upset predictions is the "unity" ticket thrown into the ring by Mpumalanga ANC chairman, premier and would-be kingmaker David "DD" Mabuza. This gambit emerged at the Mpumalanga provincial general council last Friday. While Dlamini-Zuma received 123 nominations to Ramaphosa’s 117, both were vastly outnumbered by delegates opting for the so-called "unity" ticket, endorsed by 223 branches.

"The cat is back," the slick and unnerving Mabuza announced when he returned to the premiership after a long layoff last year (which he ascribed to poisoning).

And now the cat is on the prowl, aware that his province, which has the second-largest voting delegation, could swing the leadership race — and bring him high office. But Mabuza’s trick of prevailing on branches to nominate a noncandidate called "unity" has angered supporters of the two main contenders. They see it as an attempt by Mabuza to secure his own preferred position as deputy president. He, along with Free State chairman Ace Magashule, could be out of jobs after the 2019 general election should they fail to secure national posts in the ANC.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe says there is no such thing as a "unity" candidate and it will not feature in the ballot paper. Former ANC treasurer-general and Mpumalanga premier Mathews Phosa wants the provincial party’s general council to be re-run.

At the meeting last week, Mabuza told the Financial Mail that the "unity " candidate was meant to symbolise a "consensus approach" to leadership. He said he was ready to leave the province he has led for three terms, and denied that his move was about trying to secure a position for himself.

Jacob Zuma: A collapsed conference would put him in the pound seats> Picture: THE HERALD
Jacob Zuma: A collapsed conference would put him in the pound seats> Picture: THE HERALD

Though he is on Dlamini-Zuma’s slate as deputy president, those close to him say he is uncomfortable with her candidacy. Ramaphosa backers are put off by him, emphasising the need for a "clean" slate.

Mabuza appears to some to be dangling a carrot before Ramaphosa, though he says he has not had talks with either main candidate about the province’s support.

Mabuza is hoping that through horse-trading and lobbying between the two main candidates, a middle ground can be found in which both sides can be accommodated in the ANC’s top structure — which he also hopes will be expanded from six to nine members, to include a second deputy president and two more deputy secretary-generals. The Gauteng ANC also likes the idea of an expanded top six.

The lobbying and horse-trading Mabuza has in mind has already begun. Dlamini-Zuma’s camp has made overtures to the strongly anti-Zuma Gauteng ANC chairman, Paul Mashatile, to be second deputy president on her slate. Gauteng was, however, wary of the approaches, which were led by Zuma lieutenants David Mahlobo and Kebby Maphatsoe.

While Gauteng’s prime consideration is getting its man, Mashatile, into the top leadership structure, it is painfully aware of the electoral risk the party faces at a provincial level. It is therefore unlikely to align itself with a faction which could lead to the potential loss of the province in 2019 — Dlamini-Zuma’s group is seen as a huge risk to its electoral prospects.

Mashatile, speaking at the provincial general council over the weekend, said the factionalism which has asserted itself since Polokwane had fractured the organisation "to the extent we may lose power in the next general election unless we mend our ways".

"We must elect a leadership collective that must win the confidence of all South Africans, a leadership that must have the courage to address the wrong things happening in our movement," he said.

Gauteng, as well as Mpumalanga and even the Free State, believe a "unity" or consensus approach to leadership would prevent an organisational split which will be devastating for the party in the 2019 election.

Free State premier Magashule preached a message of unity in his address on Tuesday evening in Parys, saying members should "put whatever differences aside and focus on building and strengthening the ANC". Magashule said the province’s leadership had, over its three terms in office, always reached consensus and the leadership was united.

A consensus leadership, however, may be a little far-fetched, particularly when one considers the vast differences between the two factions. It is difficult to reconcile Dlamini-Zuma’s Zuma-sponsored "radical economic transformation" with Ramaphosa’s "new deal" ticket.

Ramaphosa backers are also a tad too cocksure at this stage to even consider the likes of Mabuza on their slate.

All the pieces are in place for an intense and highly contested leadership race, characterised by lobbying and feverish dealmaking, which will ultimately be decided on the conference floor in two weeks’ time.

This is clear from the intensity of the battle on the ground among structures during the lengthy and fraught nomination process.

The road to this specific conference, the ANC’s 54th, has been littered with litigation in almost all of the provinces. The two provinces which have been hardest hit by court cases have been KwaZulu Natal and Free State. In both it was because of members aligned with those supporting Ramaphosa.

In KwaZulu Natal former premier Senzo Mchunu’s supporters succeeded in having the provincial conference — in which Zuma ally Sihle Zikalala was elected leader in 2015 — declared unlawful. In Free State, members supporting provincial deputy chairman Thabo Manyoni succeeded in having the provincial conference interdicted from taking place this past weekend.

In KwaZulu Natal, an application for leave to appeal, by Zikalala’s executive, was heard last week; judgment has been reserved. The Free State members threatened more legal action if they were not furnished with documents by Monday.

It is yet to be seen if they will follow through on threats and interdict the provincial conference on a final basis as well as to interdict Free State delegates from attending the national conference.

Whichever way the court actions in these provinces go, the status quo will either be maintained, or it will benefit Ramaphosa.

Members could even go so far as to try to interdict the conference from happening at all.

The courts have been a dispute resolution mechanism for many ANC structures because of weak, often factionalised internal processes meant to iron out disputes.

Nevertheless, the ANC has also had a high number of disputes lodged internally. Mantashe says these are being resolved on a near-daily basis. He said on Monday that the upcoming weekend would be used to re-run branch meetings in which complaints against the meetings were upheld by the party’s 20-strong dispute resolution team, comprising members of its NEC.

Last week Zuma held a meeting with national chairmen and secretaries as well as the seven candidates, appealing to them to do all in their power to ensure the conference did not collapse.

There are fears that the losing group would move to collapse the gathering once it became clear who is likely to win.

A collapsed conference would be a crisis for the ANC as its constitution is silent on how to deal with such a situation. It would place the party, and government, in limbo.

It would also open the way for Zuma to remain in the ANC pound seats, a danger neither SA nor the party can afford.

A win for Ramaphosa would allow a smoother 2019 election campaign.

But let’s not forget that Ramaphosa, though touted as a saviour, sat quietly at Zuma’s side for the past five years as the state-capture project brought the economy to its knees.

Effectively what we have here is a split of the Zuma faction which has been doing his bidding for a decade.

Who can forget former chief whip Mathole Motshekga’s role in the Nkandla scandal? He is now an outspoken Ramaphosa backer. The list is long: chief whip Jackson Mthembu, Mantashe, SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, basic education minister Angie Motshekga, science & technology minister Naledi Pandor and Mabuza.

On the other side, Dlamini-Zuma’s track record as a cabinet minister is good in parts, tainted in others.

What makes her the less attractive option, however, are her backers. Think cabinet ministers Bathabile Dlamini, Mosebenzi Zwane, David Mahlobo, and Nomvula Mokonyane, Free State premier Magashule — and the architect of the ANC’s and SA’s decline, Jacob Zuma.

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