As the ANC's 54th national conference in December inches closer, the battle lines are being drawn and presidential hopeful Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's canvassing machine is in full throttle.
Dlamini-Zuma was expected to give the keynote address at the Women's Cadre Assembly in Klerksdorp on Friday with a powerful regiment of ANC heavyweights at her side, including ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte, North West premier Supra Mahumapela and ANC Women's League leader Bathabile Dlamini.
The former African Union (AU) chairperson, since her return to the country six weeks ago, has gained rapid momentum in the race for the ANC's top spot. She has featured prominently on the political scene in recent weeks despite not currently holding a position in office. Most recently, she spoke at length at the 'ANC Cadre's Forum' in the Free State and at a 'Free Education' event hosted by the ANC Youth League's eThekwini branch on April 20th. The scheduled Women's Cadre Assembly in Klerksdorp, however, was "postponed indefinitely" without explanation according to an ANCYL representative on-site.
Waging Digital Wars
Dlamini-Zuma's digital campaign is also in full swing. Her personal website's homepage, Nkosazana.com, highlights her tenure in the African Union and seemingly proudest achievements, including her flagship policy initiative - the Africa 2063 Agenda - referenced repeatedly throughout the site. Short descriptions on issues ranging from social and community development through to radical economic transformation and the promotion of black industrialists appear to broadly capture her general policy preferences as presidential frontrunner.
Also throwing down the gauntlet is the second prominent contender to replace the incumbent President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. If Dlamini-Zuma's site presents itself merely as an online biography featuring a loose set of policy ideals, then Ramaphosa's - by contrast - is a far less subtle indication of a campaign in the works.
With a punchy slogan - 'Build.Renew.Unite'- and a specific reference to 2017, election year, in the website name, Ramaphosa's digital efforts leave little to the imagination about his political ambitions. Draped in ANC colours and a screen-wide photograph of the deputy president with the Constitution in-hand, standing alongside Nelson Mandela, the long-standing politician may just be winning the online war.
'Consolidating the anti-Zuma camp'
Back on the ground, however, his campaign remains weak, according to independent political analyst Ralph Mathekga. "Cyril is not guaranteed to lead the anti-Zuma camp. The reality is that even if he has tried to be vocal, it's a weak campaign. Lindiwe Sisulu, for example, is indicating that the anti-Zuma platform is not yet taken and must be contested. We may, at the end of this, land up with some compromise," he said.
"The Ramaphosa slate is not consolidated and it isn't clear who they would want in the top six," says Mzukisi Qobo, Research Chair at the University of Johannesburg and co-author of 'The Fall of the ANC: What Next?'.
"They have a credibility challenge in that it is not clear that there is a single woman candidate readily available for their slate," he says. "On the pro-Zuma side, you have Dlamini-Zuma, Baleka Mbete and a whole slew of other women blowing the trumpet including Bathabile Dlamini and Jessie Duarte," he says.
Ramaphosa appears to be making a strategic error in the early days of his campaign, according to Qobo. "He seems to be trying to out-rhetoric Dlamini-Zuma on radical economic transformation whereas a better positioning for him may include focusing on the need for healing in the ANC and to stabilize the economy. Right now, however, he doesn't have a clear message that sets him apart," he says.
The ghosts of Ramaphosa's past may also return to haunt him, Qobo added. "Beyond his lack of fluency on his vision, there are going to be many accusations coming up closer to December. They will bring up Marikana, the fact the he is a wealthy businessperson, and perception that he acts only in the interests of business," he said. Dlamini-Zuma, though embroiled in the Sarafina II scandal in the early years of Mandela's presidency as minister of health, has fewer blights to her name or at least none that appear to have remained in the public imagination.
Battle of the provinces
Though the official leadership campaigning period is yet to begin, the two main candidates are actively mobilising support across the provinces. Well-known provinces that are "firmly in the grasp of the Dlamini-Zuma faction", Qobo claims, are the Free State, North West and Mpumpalanga. "There are strong premiers such as Ace Magashule, Supra Mahumapela and David "DD" Mabuza that are likely to guarantee a unified voice in those provinces," he says.
In-fighting in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Qobo said, means predicting the KZN result is more difficult. "The Zuma faction still holds sway, but the province is less cohesive than between 2007 and 2012," he says.
Gauteng, though critical of President Jacob Zuma in past, has been "fairly quiet about succession battles in the past few months," he says. "There is a sense they are regrouping quietly, observing the mood and are concerned about internal cohesiveness."
While the Northern Cape appears to be strongly in favour of President Zuma, and by extension Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Western and Eastern Cape provinces are more fluid, according to Qobo. "The Western Cape hardly goes to Conference with one voice. This has been worsened by instability at the provincial executive committee level, including the absence of a clear leader," he says.
'Wild card' candidates
While multiple other players in the ANC, including Lindiwe Sisulu and Baleka Mbete, have suggested they would attempt to run for the top office, Qobo says it is likely there will be "no other real candidates other than these main two".
"Wild card candidates often emerge closer to the elective conferences but the problem is that once the slates consolidate, it is unlikely for anyone beyond the major contenders to emerge as serious candidates," he said. "The exception was in the early 1990s when Chris Hani and Thabo Mbeki both wanted to claim the presidency of the ANC and were both told to stand aside for Walter Sisulu," he added.
"The divisions now in the ANC and the slates are quite distinct. There isn't likely to be a veteran group of elders – a 'third way'- that will emerge now to bolster another candidate," Qobo said.
Mathekga says divisions in the ANC may preclude political compromises or electing a credible top leadership in 2017. "They will go into the conference, fight it out and those who come out will have to deal with the question of 2019. If they don't manage the outcome of the elective conference well, we are going to have a split ANC that might even be consumed by those divisions even after the conference," Mathekga said.
The ANC will officially commence the leadership race after its National Policy Conference in June.
*In a previous version, this article stated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma spoke at a 'Free Education' event hosted by the ANC Youth League on Freedom Day. This has since been corrected.
*This article has been updated to reflect that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma did not attend the gathering of the Women's Cadre Assembly in Klerksdorp.