Motlanthe a 'closed book'
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is frustrating fans and opponents alike with his refusal to publicly state if he is available for nomination as ANC president at the party's national conference in December.
Judging by both official and unofficial comments emanating from his office, Motlanthe is most likely to run if nominated by ANC branches to do so.
Over the past six months, his aides and political associates have told reporters that Motlanthe, who is the ANC deputy president, would run for the top job even if it meant doing so against the incumbent, President Jacob Zuma.
This past weekend, there were more clear signs of his availability when his spokesman, Thabo Masebe, told the Sunday Times that the deputy president will not entertain lobby groups seeking a "political solution" to the leadership race that would see both Zuma and Motlanthe retain their current ANC posts at Mangaung.
"The deputy president will not entertain any talks with any lobby group about positions or leadership arrangements in the ANC," Masebe said.
"He respects the right of branches to nominate ANC leaders. It is members of the ANC who will decide. It will not be a group of people who will make deals."
For many of those seeking to end Zuma's ANC reign in December and ensure that he does not get a second term as the country's president in 2014, Masebe's comments fall far short of the certainty they urgently need with less than five months to go to the conference.
What they would like to hear is Motlanthe himself saying he is "ready to lead" or "available to serve", or using any other euphemism preferred by ANC leaders when expressing their ambitions for higher office.
But Motlanthe is no Tokyo Sexwale. He would do no such thing. He is such a stickler for internal party rules that we are most likely not to hear anything concrete from him about his intentions, at least until October when the nomination process is officially opened by Luthuli House.
This has become a source of irritation for some within the ANC, who broadly refer to themselves as "Forces for Change" as they fear the uncertainty around Motlanthe's candidacy would give an unfair advantage to Zuma's second-term campaign.
At the conclusion of the recent ANC policy conference, one Gauteng-based "Forces for Change" campaigner told this columnist that there was general frustration within the group's ranks over Motlanthe's approach.
"While the policy conference demonstrated that there are enough ANC structures ready to push for change, the greatest obstacle is that no one knows for sure if "Mkhuluwa" (Motlanthe's nickname in the ANC) would stand. He refuses to talk about it even in private. What if after all of this he says he is not willing?" asked the activist.
This uncertainty explains why a small group of Zuma opponents in the Western and Eastern Cape have turned to Sexwale.
Zuma backers are equally frustrated by Motlanthe. They know the deputy president poses the only real threat to Zuma's re-election and that having Motlanthe on their side would guarantee their man victory.
For much of last year, Zuma lobbyists operated on the basis that Motlanthe would "not have the courage" to stand against the president and that he would only agree to be nominated if he is the sole candidate for the post.
It seems to have now dawned on them that this assumption was false and that a bruising Zuma versus Motlanthe contest is certain.
That has brought about an urgency for renewed talk of maintaining the ANC "top three" status quo - with Zuma, Motlanthe and current secretary-general Gwede Mantashe keeping their posts.
Besides Motlanthe's insistence, through Masebe, that the decision on who becomes the next ANC leader should be left to branches, one of the biggest hurdles to this proposed solution is the personal relationship between Zuma and Motlanthe.
Although it cannot be described as hostile, talk in the corridors of power is that it has cooled over the years, partly due to claims that the deputy president was "too close" to former president Thabo Mbeki and his associates.
If ANC alliance and government insiders are to be believed, only the "balance of forces" within the ruling party would force Zuma to continue working with Motlanthe as his deputy.
But what of Motlanthe's strategy of playing his cards so close to his chest that even his backers are left guessing about his game plan? Would it backfire for him?
Not likely. It actually strengthens his hand.
With factionalism so rife in the party, his refusal to be associated with any of the groupings would strengthen his position as branches may see in him a leader who can reunify the ANC after seven years of internal strife.
His approach also means that, were he to be elected party president, Motlanthe will not be beholden to any faction that may seek to control him on the basis that it put him in power.
Frustrated Zuma opponents within and outside the ANC accuse Motlanthe of being "cowardly" but, in the long run, keeping silent may prove to be the best strategy for his campaign, as well as the possible future presidency.