In a massive u-turn since the controversial Cabinet reshuffle in March, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and chief whip Jackson Mthembu are scrambling to prevent MPs from revolting against Zuma in the vote of no confidence on Tuesday.
It's a fight for political survival, not only among those in top echelons of the ANC but throughout the NEC, says analyst Ralph Mathekga.
"Mantashe and Mthembu have become sober," Mathekga told HuffPost SA. "They have realised the implication that if Mr Zuma is gone, the ANC is gone."
Read: The Capture Of Gwede Mantashe
He said both find themselves in an impossible position. Neither has a problem with "going after Zuma" but both understand that "you can't go for Zuma without going for the ANC at this point".
"They've allowed a situation in which Mr Zuma's politics have become intricately linked to that of the ANC to a point where for them to try and save the party from losing power, they will have to save Zuma," he remarked.
Mantashe and Mthembu are among those trying by all means to implore ANC members to keep issues around Zuma "in-house", Mathekga said. "They are trying to say [they] have a problem with Zuma, might just convince him to go a few months down the line after December... but acting hastily might lose them power," he said.
ANC top leaders 'Mantash'd' to stay alive
Mantashe and Mthembu's views on Zuma -- whether implicit or overt -- have changed remarkably since the seismic cabinet reshuffle months ago, Mathekga noted. Zuma's widely anticipated move saw some concerned ministers -- including Pravin Gordhan, Mcebisi Jonas and Derek Hanekom -- unceremoniously kicked to the curb in Zuma's most controversial reshuffle in March.
At the time, Mthembu publicly denounced Gordhan and Jonas' shock removal from Treasury based on a suspect intelligence report linked to President Zuma. Their crimes, Mthembu stated, had been their incorruptibility and "defence and protection of our public purpose with the highest levels of integrity and morality".
In October the previous year, Mthembu proposed the entire ANC NEC step down after the party's dismal performance in the August 2016 elections. The chief whip, with the secretary general, at the time were reported to have shown moral support to Gordhan who was to face charges of fraud at the behest of the National Prosecuting Authority's Shaun Abrahams.
Their support for Gordhan was interpreted as a tacit vote of no confidence against Zuma, News24 reported.
Fast forward a few months to last week Friday, Mthembu had changed tunes. He decried efforts to get rid of the president through a vote of no confidence, adding it would be "tantamount to throwing a nuclear bomb" at the country. He was, however, at pains to convince the public the ANC has been responsive to deep discontent with the party in society and, specifically the series of successive and turbulent removals of ministers as far back as Nhlanhla Nene, also from Treasury, in 2015.
Despite obvious discontent with the state of the party, Mthembu said ANC MPs would vote against the 8 August motion "because it is a crude and populist attempt to unseat a popularly elected president".
Mantashe, the long-standing secretary-general of the party, reacted with similar dismay at Zuma's infamous midnight reshuffle, the morning after saying it felt like the list of new ministers "had been developed elsewhere and given to us [by Zuma] to legitimise it".
READ: The Capture Of Gwede Mantashe
In a matter of days, he made a swift u-turn -- alongside Zweli Mkhize and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa who were also openly critical of the reshuffle -- apologising for criticising the president in public and, since, sticking to the official party line.
Mathekga said many across the party have followed suit in order to protect their political careers and livelihoods. "This is their lifeline... their breadline," he stressed.
"Sad as it is, most of our MPs do not know how else to make a living except being where they are".
'The ANC is scared... and slowly committing suicide'
Professor Susan Booysen of the Wits School of Government agreed that people within the ANC, including a vast number of MPs, are fighting for political survival.
"They are aware they will be disciplined, pushed out of the party and as MPs, and out of positions of salaries if they dare to dissent in an open vote [on August 8]," she said.
Despite mounting dissent within ANC ranks across the board, both Booysen and Mathekga predict the ANC will ultimately stand behind its leader, even if at the expense of public trust.
"The degree of the president's indefensibility has escalated largely. So ANC MPs are really putting their integrity, credibility and public esteem on the line much more, even more than previously, should they continue supporting their president," she remarked.
If Zuma survives this, his eighth vote of no confidence, Booysen anticipates public trust in the ANC will continue to dissipate.
"The ANC is in this very big predicament by keeping the president," she said. "If they cannot definitively regain loyalty and trust from the people... they are continuing on the track [on which] they are really committing suicide".Suggest a correction