A ruling on corruption charges complicates Jacob Zuma's smooth run to Mangaung
Not even his fiercest critic would deny that President Jacob Zuma is miles ahead of any of his possible competitors in the yet-to-be-official race for the ANC's top post.
As the ruling party's 53rd national conference - scheduled to be held in Mangaung, Free State, in December - approaches, there is a sense that Zuma's likely challengers may have left things too late to pose any serious threat to his bid for a second term.
Parallels are being drawn between this year's contest and the titanic battle that preceded Zuma's victory over then party president Thabo Mbeki at the Polokwane conference in 2007.
By this stage of the 2007 race, Zuma's campaign to unseat Mbeki was in full swing - with the then ANC deputy president criss-crossing South Africa to lobby party branches for support.
Working against Mbeki, among other factors, was the fact that his second term as South Africa's president was coming to an end, meaning he had little to offer regional and provincial leaders whose backing he needed in order to convince the majority of ANC branches to re-elect him.
Zuma, on the other hand, goes to Mangaung with his hand strengthened by the fact that he would be constitutionally eligible to be named as his party's candidate for another term as head of state in 2014.
Moreover, the recent decision by the ANC's national disciplinary committee to expel ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who had become the poster boy for the anti-Zuma campaign, is widely regarded as a major boost for those seeking to have the president retain his post.
Even if Malema succeeds in his bid to have the expulsion overturned by the ANC's national disciplinary committee of appeals, he is unlikely to play a direct role in the run-up to Mangaung, as he will be out of the party for a minimum of two years owing to a suspended sentence imposed on him for ill-discipline in 2010.
But two developments in recent weeks suggest that the road to Mangaung may be far from an easy stroll to re-election for Zuma.
Firstly, as reported in this newspaper last week, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe's close associates have given the strongest indication yet that he will avail himself of nomination for the ANC presidency if asked to do so by party structures.
Secondly, the Supreme Court of Appeal's recent ruling that the National Prosecuting Authority's 2009 decision to drop corruption charges against Zuma is reviewable will be a useful campaign tool for his opponents.
The fact that those quoted by this newspaper confirming Motlanthe's readiness to run did so on condition of anonymity has generated some criticism.
But, in light of the ANC national executive committee decision to ban party members from discussing their leadership preferences before the nomination process is officially opened in October, their request to remain anonymous is understandable.
In a strongly worded statement issued at the end of a special NEC meeting last August, the party threatened to take disciplinary action against any member or structure that defied this instruction.
"The special NEC has directed all our structures, including the leagues and provinces, to desist from engaging in any discussion that seeks to undermine the established nomination procedures and practices for electing ANC leadership.
"Any continuation on the part of any person or any structure to undermine the constitution regarding this matter will henceforth be construed as defiance and violation of standing ANC practices and procedures," the party said.
But, make no mistake, lobbying for positions ahead of Mangaung is intensifying, albeit informally and underground.
A Gauteng provincial executive committee member opposed to Zuma's re-election recently told the Sunday Times that the uncertainty over whether Motlanthe would accept nomination if it meant he would have to run against the president was a major stumbling block to those seeking a change in leadership.
"It becomes difficult to convince people to support a particular candidate when you don't even know if that person has the appetite to run against the incumbent," the PEC member said.
But until the process officially begins in October, expect neither Motlanthe nor Zuma - nor any other senior ANC leader, for that matter - to state their intentions.
Those campaigning for Zuma's retention as ANC president say they would back Motlanthe to continue as deputy president - provided he does not stand against his boss at Mangaung.
"I think the general view is that Motlanthe should stay on as deputy president, with the view that he will then take over from JZ at the next conference in 2017.
"But if he stands against him and loses, I am afraid it would mean the end of the deputy president's political career," said a pro-Zuma lobbyist this week.
However, a Motlanthe aide pointed out last week that the deputy president, who briefly served as South Africa's president after Mbeki was forced out of office, had nothing to lose: "Remember, he is a retired president. He is a pensioner. Even now, he doesn't get a salary from his position as deputy president ..."
While Zuma backers insist that they want the status quo to remain in Mangaung with regard to the top three posts of president, deputy president and secretary-general - which is held by Gwede Mantashe - they say this would change "if election slates become a feature" ahead of the conference.
With the backing of KwaZulu-Natal, the province with the most ANC members and which would therefore send the largest delegation to the national conference, Zuma is believed by his supporters to be in the pound seats. He also enjoys "overwhelming support" in the Eastern Cape, which comes a close second to KwaZulu-Natal in terms of membership.
"Those are very big provinces and, if [Free State premier and provincial ANC chairman] Ace Magashule and [Mpumalanga premier] David Mabuza are re-elected, it would mean we already have a large number structures backing Zuma," said a lobbyist.
Likely to back a leadership change are Gauteng, Limpopo, Northern Cape and the youth league - which enjoys the status of a province during national congresses.
But while Zuma backers say they are confident of victory, his detractors say this week's appeal court decision may work in their favour.
Ahead of the ruling this week, many of Zuma's opponents - especially in the youth league - thought the case brought by the DA would result in corruption charges against Zuma being reinstated.
"Okay, the SCA judgment may not be as bad for Zuma as some of us might have thought it would be, but it cannot be discounted as a factor going to Mangaung," said a former youth league leader.
"Structures may just feel that they can't risk having another five years with a president going in and out of court trying to clear his name. It is definitely a factor that will be raised as we go to Mangaung."
But if Zuma detractors within the party are celebrating the fact that the court gave the DA access to the records used by the NPA in deciding to drop charges against the president, this is not reflected in the official statements issued by the ANC and its allies this week.
In a statement issued by party spokesman Jackson Mthembu, the ANC expressed disappointment with the ruling and strongly indicated that it would back a Constitutional Court challenge to the decision by the appeal court.
"The ANC is of the view that this matter should not go unchallenged, as it might have huge implications for effective governance, including current and future decisions of any organ of state," Mthembu said.
This was echoed by the SA Communist Party, which accused the DA of trying to "destabilise the government through the courts".
"Having lost the elections, the DA will stop at nothing but to use our courts and institutions of democracy to convince people politically after it has failed to do so democratically ...
"The SACP hopes our courts are, in the administration of justice, alive to this agenda and will not allow themselves to be dragged into the agenda of organisations like the DA."
Even Cosatu, whose general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, is said to have cautioned against backing leaders facing corruption charges during a recent central committee meeting, issued a statement supporting Zuma in his legal battle with the DA.
"Cosatu reaffirms its full support for the ANC's 2007 Polokwane conference resolutions and the leadership collective elected at that conference," the trade union federation said.
After initially announcing that the youth league "will publicly communicate its reaction" to the ruling on Thursday, Malema's organisation opted to remain mum.
ANCYL spokesman Floyd Shivambu said on Friday that the organisation had "decided not to comment any more" but refused to say why.
The ruling may not have severely crippled Zuma's second-term campaign, but those working behind the scenes to remove him in Mangaung will be hoping it has done enough to make party branches have a rethink over his re-election.