Post-Zuma era scenario
A MOB of foreign correspondents camped on the lawn of Cape Town's Volkshospitaal for many days in December 1985 with camera lenses trained on the front door.
There was a rumour going around that the prisoner Nelson Mandela, who was in for prostate surgery, might be released, and we were terrified of missing the moment.
The problem was that none of us knew what he looked like, so every time a black man of plausible age came out the door - which was not often because it was still the all-white preferred hospital of the Nat cabinet - the cameras would whirr and one of us would be delegated to ask the startled person who he was.
Mandela was still firmly behind bars when, a few years later, I found myself in another posse camped outside the swing doors of a Johannesburg mining institution waiting for the National Union of Mineworkers delegation to emerge from negotiations to settle the most audacious strike since the Nats gained power in 1948.
We were waiting for Cyril Ramaphosa, but again, none of us knew what he looked like so everyone would spring to attention every time the doors opened to release an African man.
That changed very quickly as the mineworkers' strike wore on and Ramaphosa became something of a celebrity.
Now this bit you will have to take on trust because I cannot think of anyone who would remember it: After interviewing Ramaphosa for the first time a week or so later, I told my colleagues at United Press International - and anyone else I could corner at parties - that this man was destined to become South Africa's president one day.
He was general secretary of the NUM at the time, engaging the Chamber of Mines bargaining team with patience, skill and iron determination. He had a presence and gravitas matched by few, but recognised by most who sat across the negotiating table.
Years later, I watched as he led the constitutional negotiations at parliament and I became only more certain that he should and probably would lead the country one day.
But I realised then that he was unlikely to compete and campaign for the job. He has always preferred the battle of ideas to the muddy political scrum.
If he became president, I wrote at the time, it would be because the nation or the ANC at least had come to him with a signed and sealed offer - preferably with a notary's ribbon - asking him to take the job in the national interest because the incumbents had made such a hash of it and didn't know how to put things right. And that is pretty much where we find ourselves.
The race is not over, but strong indications now are that Jacob Zuma will be elected to a second five-year term as ANC leader when the party meets in Mangaung from December 16.
Unless a deal is done at Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, to save Kgalema Motlanthe's position as deputy president of the party, there is a real chance the job will go to Ramaphosa.
Politics is, of course, a very unpredictable business, but if Ramaphosa survives five years as Zuma's party deputy, he could be in pole position to win the ANC leadership race in 2017, and to become president of the country in 2019.
With Zuma apparently well positioned to win that second term, those of us who are not in his fan club should be looking to how we survive the next seven years, and then to the post-Zuma era.
Ramaphosa and Motlanthe are both decent men mostly given to nuanced debate and considered decisions, but we have seen that Motlanthe has been unable in the Zuma fold to impose his decency on the administration of which he is a part. He has been unable to assume the authority of the prime minister that Thabo Mbeki claimed for himself in Nelson Mandela's government.
Instead, he has largely been sidelined to the ANC old guard watching in impotent dismay as the dreams and ideals of their 100-year-old movement are trampled in the rush to the feeding trough.
The result has been a leadership vacuum in which those whose work does not offer significant opportunity for enrichment have been allowed to get on with it, and those commanding the tender process have been co-opted or compromised. Could Ramaphosa, who has seemed to wash his hands of it all these past few years, do any better than Motlanthe?
The best hope is that he has struck a deal with Zuma to ensure that he would be allowed to run the government while the president runs the politics - that he would be the de facto prime minister.
It is hard to imagine why else he would be willing to mortgage his still formidable reputation to Zuma's future.
In that role, he would be able to invigorate the fight against high-level corruption and to implement Trevor Manuel's national plan for long-term social and economic development.
He would be able, if there is a pact that forbids Zuma to undercut him, to bring direction back to our government.
But it is a risky venture. He would have to be willing to play the politics of power rather than of persuasion and negotiation. He would have to be up for some serious political hardball.
He could also be dragged down into the mire of Zuma's personal avarice, forced to defend more partners, more children born to girlfriends and more economic opportunity diverted to the family and friends of a leader already happy to let other men pay the domestic bills of his wives.
The person who serves as Zuma's deputy could have a formidable advantage when the ANC meets in 2017 to elect another leader. He or she also could be fatally tainted by the association.
Meanwhile, we must preserve as much as possible of the greatness we still can claim and plan, post-Zuma, to build on it.