JZ needs rivals close
MINUTES after Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe lost dismally to President Jacob Zuma in the ANC leadership race yesterday, a seasoned party activist had this to say to me:
"Maybe Mkhuluwa [a term ANC members use to show their respect for a man they regard as an older brother] should have waited for 2017. I call him 'Hola 7' because he seems to make history only in the years that end with [a] seven."
He pointed out that Motlanthe was imprisoned on Robben Island for his underground ANC activities in 1977. He came out of prison in 1987.
In 1997, at the ANC's Mafikeng national conference, Motlanthe was elected secretary-general.
Exactly 10 years later, in 2007, delegates to the party's Polokwane national conference elected him deputy president.
"So I think he would have stood a greater chance of winning the ANC presidency in 2017 than now. All he needed to do was wait," said the activist, who has spent the past few months campaigning vigorously for Zuma.
Obviously, Motlanthe's defeat at the hands of his boss in the government cannot be explained away by the deputy president's decision to contest in a year that does not end with a seven - his allegedly lucky number.
But does this crushing defeat mean an end to Motlanthe's political career? Is he about to lose his job as the country's deputy president?
To the first question I would say not necessarily. It depends on what Motlanthe does between now and the next ANC national conference in 2017.
Lest we forget, Gwede Mantashe, the current ANC secretary-general, left the 2002 ANC national conference in Stellenbosch a humiliated man after failing to make it onto the list of additional national executive members.
Five years later, he was elected secretary-general and yesterday he was returned to office with 3058 votes - more than Zuma and his new ANC deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, garnered.
So it is not a given that Motlanthe stands no chance at the next conference, especially as Zuma will not be running for office in 2017.
But it is the second question that seems to be exercising the minds of most people: Will Motlanthe still be the country's deputy president when Zuma delivers his next state of the nation speech?
As a man who seemed reluctant to take up the post when Zuma became the country's president in 2009, it would not be a complete surprise if he decided to resign.
But if his long-term ambition is still to become ANC president, resignation could backfire on him - the party's rank-and-file viewing him as a grumpy leader who could not stomach the decision of the majority.
His continued stay in the government is also dependent on what Zuma plans to do.
After such a resounding victory, it is tempting for a politician to start purging those who opposed him during the run up to an election.
So it is highly probable that Zuma will remove Motlanthe, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile, Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula - all of whom were opposed to his second-term bid - from his cabinet.
But if his remarks soon after his re-election yesterday are anything to go by, Zuma is unlikely to do so.
Speaking to delegates - who continued to sing anti-Motlanthe songs long after the election had been concluded - Zuma seemed keen not to repeat the Polokwane mistake, when the triumphalism of his supporters caused a split in the ANC.
With the next general elections less than 24 months away, and the ANC still nursing the wounds left by the 2008 breakaway by some of its members, who went on to form COPE, Zuma is aware that his party cannot afford another split.
He needs Mashatile, who is also ANC chairman in Gauteng, to fight off the DA's bid to take over the province in 2014.
And, despite their differences, Zuma would be the first to acknowledge Mbalula's amazing ability to rally the young behind the ANC during elections.
In 2009, Sexwale's private jet came in handy as Zuma flew around the country campaigning. Well, now he has the presidential plane and wealthy Ramaphosa as his deputy.
Zuma's call for unity and reconciliation suggested that he was not about to do something that would cause further divisions in the already strife-torn political party.
But, then again, in September 2008 Zuma sounded very conciliatory towards President Thabo Mbeki a mere five days before engineering the latter's spectacular recalling from office.
However, it has never been Zuma's style to completely kick out his political rivals.
You really have to test his patience in the same way as expelled ANC Youth League boss Julius Malema to have Zuma remove you for political reasons.
He seems to enjoy keeping his rivals close enough for him to watch them squirm.
As Motlanthe prepares for his holiday break in the Seychelles after the Mangaung conference, he will be aware that life is about to become very uncomfortable for him and ministers Mashatile, Sexwale and Mbalula.
They now serve in the cabinet of a government completely at Zuma's mercy.