Two months ago, the ANC's Alfred Nzo region offered up Zweli Mkhize as what they called "a third way", an alternative presidential option who may have the political sense to unify a party buckled by factionalism.
It was at a time when the party's branches were tossing around names -– such as Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and National Speaker Baleka Mbete –- and few thought any of these candidates, including Mkhize, would have a chance at going up against the two giants -- Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
But, as the ANC's national conference draws closer, with the party scrambling to organise some element of harmony within its ranks, the idea of a Mkhize presidency does not seem so far-fetched.
Mkhize has been preaching unity, at the same time being one of the few ANC bigwigs who has the clout to bring it about -– and this may be exactly what the ANC needs ahead of 2019 when South Africans go to the polls.
The rank and file of an ANC cadre
In 1986, Mkhize went into exile before serving as a member of the ANC's National Health Secretariat in the early 1990s.
He served as MEC for health in KwaZulu-Natal, his home province, from 1994 to 2004 and was boosted to MEC for finance and economic development thereafter. During this tenure, he was chosen as provincial chairperson of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), a position he was re-elected to in 2012 before taking up his seat in Luthuli House as treasurer-general.
Mkhize was rewarded the top provincial post after PresidentJacob Zuma's election as ANC president in 2007 –- at the time, Mkhize was a staunch Zuma supporter and rallied around him for the presidency.
Before he took the province's top spot, ANC insiders said Mkhize's premiership could ensure unity in KZN among the ANC's alliance partners, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party (SACP). It worked. KZN was the driving force behind Zuma's second-term win.
But the fall-out between Zuma and Mkhize came soon afterwards when the emergence of a report compiled by former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli claimed the then premier was one of the ANC leaders plotting to oust Zuma at Mangaung.
But Mkhize was too strong to simply oust, so the ANC decided to promote him. The move sparked speculation that a powerful pro-Zuma group in the province was working hard to remove Mkhize to ensure it controls provincial government resources. That group, now headed by Sihle Zikalala, still stands.
The last bridge between Mkhize and the president was burnt when he hit back after Number One's move to replace then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene with the little-known Des van Rooyen back in 2015. Behind the scenes, Mkhize was reportedly one of the pivotal role players whose lobbying forced Zuma to backtrack on his decision.
But since then, Mkhize has managed to remain outspoken on critical issues plaguing the country without bringing his beloved party into disrepute or playing to the tune of any particular faction. This has earned him respect from several key constituencies within the ruling party.
Allegations that could not stick
While Ramaphosa's integrity is being devoured by numerous alleged sex scandals and Dlamini-Zuma is being criticised for failing to detract away or set herself apart from her ex-husband's discourse, Mkhize has remained unscathed –- so far.
Most recently, former PetroSA board member William Steenkamp said in an affidavit that he was chastised by an adviser to Central Energy Fund chairperson, Luvo Makasi, for favouring a Nigerian company allegedly linked to Mkhize instead of one aligned to Zuma for a framework agreement for an offshore gas exploration site.
Mkhize denied links to the company and is seeking legal advice on the matter.
Also, a new book written by journalist Redi Tlhabi apparently reveals how Mkhize allegedly misled Zuma's rape accuser Fezeka Kuzwayo, commonly known as Khwezi, to intentionally compromise her case. Mkhize also denied these claims, explaining his involvement in the matter at detail.
Blazing a campaign trail
Mkhize, like Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma, has been pushing the message of radical economic transformation –- which is the official party line, for now. But, unlike Dlamini-Zuma, Mkhize has been widely vocal and firm on the leaked Gupta emails and corruption, calling for those implicated to be held to account.
Mkhize's rhetoric is unity in the ANC -- as well as the need for transformation in the economy -- and he uses every opportunity to cement these notions.
Mkhize has been blazing a campaign trail through his home province of KZN, speaking four times there this week alone.
He spoke at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on Thursday, delivered the keynote address at the South African Students' Congress' 26th anniversary celebrations, at the OR Tambo Memorial Lecture in Durban and at Heritage Day celebrations in KwaDukuza.
And he was welcomed. The venues were packed with ANC branch members and leadership –- the people whose votes will count come December.
According to those close to him, there is also a big focus on the Eastern Cape in the run-up to December.
At the same time, what was previously to be known as the "premier league"‚ comprising of the leaders of the Free State‚ North West and Mpumalanga provinces‚ is now preaching for a unity candidate as well.
Combined, these provinces control of at least half the voting delegates at the elective conference and their premiers -– Ace Magashule‚ David Mabuza and Supra Mahumapelo –- were previously seen as staunch Zuma backers.
Spearheaded by Mabuza‚ the five leaders, including KZN deputy leader Willies Mchunu and Gauteng chair Paul Mashatile, all met earlier this month and emerged with a single message: unity.
Although they would not say who they are backing, Mkhize has emerged as the only "unity candidate" at the moment.
Mkhize's road to December
Mkhize will have to somehow prove himself to be more than an ideological alternative to a split party, but instead as a leader capable of pulling the ANC out of its woes. He has proven his mettle in KZN, with the party sending him there to quell tensions between factions previously.
He will also have to work through the many branches who say they will vote in accordance with the party's tradition that the deputy should be the one to succeed the president.
Even if Mkhize were to battle through and prevail, what happens then? Will Ramaphosa back away peacefully? And what will Mkhize do about Zuma and his charges?
Achieving unity in a party fraught with factionalism is difficult, to say the least, and if the ANC chooses Mkhize as a leader, it will be because it is trying to save face ahead of 2019 when South Africa goes to the polls –- not because the factions demanded it.
Those factions will still remain after December, and unless the ANC finds a way to unify them under Mkhize, if he were to come out on top, then the ANC is destined for major losses in 2019.