Cyril Ramaphosa may have made a mistake by excluding presidential kingmaker and Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza from his top-six slate.
Instead, the deputy president opted for science and technology minister Naledi Pandor as his running mate ahead of the ANC's national conference in December.
Mabuza is said to have a firm grip on most of the 736 voting delegates from his province who will be attending the conference. This makes Mpumalanga the second-biggest voting bloc behind KwaZulu-Natal, and makes Mabuza a kingmaker, or queenmaker, come December.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma took heed of this months ago, naming Mabuza deputy president on her slate.
Analysts say although Pandor may have been the better option for Ramaphosa come 2019 -- when the ANC will seek to present a credible leadership in efforts to woo back voters to the party during the national elections -- not offering Mabuza a top spot may cost Ramaphosa his hopes at winning over the ANC in December.
He is not convinced that Mabuza would want to be on Ramaphosa's slate -- even if an offer was made, said commented political analyst Ralph Mathekga.
"[Pandor] has stayed away from the factions and comes with a great deal of credibility. It represents a great winning team for 2019. But is it strategic for now? I don't think so," Mathekga said.
"If Ramaphosa gave Mabuza an obscure position in the top six, [Ramaphosa] couldn't say he was fighting corruption while holding Mabuza's hand."
Zweli Mkhize or David Mabuza.politics is about numbers.Which branch Naledi Pandor comes from?CR has lost it shame.— Brian Khumalo (PMB) (@BrianKh99376641) November 5, 2017
Mabuza is shrouded in a host of controversies. In 2010, a alleged sum of R14-million in cash was stolen from his house. But the province's organised-crime unit insisted only R1,200 was stolen -- possibly to avoid drawing too much attention to Mabuza.
He has also been accused of being behind several political killings in Mpumalanga.
Mabuza has a serious bargaining chip, said the University of the Witwatersrand's Susan Booysen.
"Mabuza has the political power to force his way to the top; Pandor is not politically ambitious. There is a graphic contrast between the two. So much kingmaking power also comes with so much baggage," Booysen said.
Ramaphosa's best political move would have been to take on Mabuza as his deputy, said the University of Johannesburg's Mzukisi Qobo.
"The main consideration for now should be to win 2017. But one has to balance principle and pragmatism in politics, and Ramaphosa veered to the side of principle [in choosing Pandor]. It's a big gamble," Qobo said.
I think Cyril Ramaphosa should've gone for David Mabuza, only for the large number of votes in Mpumalanga. But let me go back to reading...— SikonathiMantshantsh (@SikonathiM) November 5, 2017
However, political analyst Keith Gottschalk said there is still time for changes to be made.
"Ramaphosa can still continue negotiations with Mabuza. Perhaps he may offer him a state post come 2019. At least in this way, Ramaphosa did not have to submit to the take-it-or-leave-it option that Mabuza is offering. Slates are not contracts. Ramaphosa is not obligated to keep to it," Gottschalk said.
But Mabuza is still playing his cards close to his chest, as he has not revealed whom he is backing in the presidential race. Despite recent talk of unity, it still remains unclear how he will persuade his branches to vote.
Ramaphosa is clearly looking ahead to 2019, trying to provide the most credible leadership in the hopes of holding on to the reins should he become ANC president. But to do that, he has to be voted into the top spot first.
Mabuza will play a key part in making this happen -- for any candidate. Perhaps Ramaphosa knows something the rest of the country doesn't, or perhaps he feels like he has enough to secure the win without the Mpumalanga boss's help.
The question on everyone's lips: what will Mabuza do next?