18/12/2017 20:35 SAST | Updated 18/12/2017 20:36 SAST

How Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma Lost

The time was right for her campaign, but her friends were not.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

On Women's Day in August 2016, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was told, "It's time!" Surrounded by friends on one of her visits from her job in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Johannesburg, they told it was time to throw her hat in the ring to contest for the job of ANC president.

"She was extremely hesitant," says a close aide. "We had to persuade her and get other women to speak to her." A few months later, in January 2017, a delegation from the ANC Women's League flew to the African Union Summit where Dlamini-Zuma presided over her last meeting as Commission chair.

At lunch at an Addis Ababa villa, the Women's League members told her again: "It's your time. Ke Nako." It often felt like it was her time.

But on Monday night, a subdued Dlamini-Zuma sat on the raised stage with the outgoing ANC national executive ahead of the results. She suddenly looked tired and quiet. One by one, the ANC's leading women came over to her in solidarity and we would later realise – sympathy. First the ANC Women's League president Bathabile Dlamini and then later the ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete sat quietly with her.

About 45 minutes later, the results came out – she lost to ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa by just 179 votes. Let's reel back to look at how a hard-fought campaign was lost.

In January this year Dlamini-Zuma agreed to and was escorted home from Addis Ababa to run and she returned to a tumultuous welcome at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg. That was the formal start of a campaign that would take her to most South African nooks and crannies and also to any gathering, which offered a platform for a stump speech.

Dlamini-Zuma's campaign was run by the ANC Women's League and because it was politically hosted, she had access to the party's structures, which organised meetings and provided the essential political muscle to support it.

"We campaigned in a hostile environment," said a spokesperson. The Dlamini-Zuma team felt the media had set itself up against her candidature and this led to fractious relationships. Dlamini-Zuma gave interviews only to sweetheart media and looked in a sourpuss mood at the rest – this was probably one factor in her loss.

From her return, Dlamini-Zuma kept up a cracking pace: she attended and spoke at between six and seven events a week.

"She looked presidential then," said a spokesperson about a meeting in Mpumalanga in November. "On that day, she explained the fourth industrial revolution entirely in Zulu. Can you imagine that?" It's probably not a good idea to explain the industrial revolution in any language to a community so desperately in need of bread, butter and jobs.

Dlamini-Zuma couched her campaign in the jargon of plans like Agenda 2063, a nebulous pan-African platform for development, which doesn't resonate in a popular fashion.

And, with the benefit of hindsight, the Women's League was not a great partner. Throughout Dlamini-Zuma's campaign, league president Dlamini was embroiled in the grants-payment crisis that infected the campaign.

Dlamini-Zuma is a well-regarded politician who has held numerous big jobs both in South Africa and on the continent. She was admired and welcomed on the stumps by black African women for whom she is a figure of aspiration. The time was right for her campaign, but her friends were not.

If one key aspect hobbled the candidate, it was the odd company she surrounded herself with.

Jacques Pauw's book "The President's Keeper" revealed that one of Dlamini-Zuma's funders was Adriano Mazzotti, a tobacco dealer who is also alleged to be an underworld criminal figure and fell into trouble with the SA Revenue Service for tax evasion.

Another permanent fixture on her campaign who caused embarrassment was Carl Niehaus, the spokesperson for the military veterans ( MKMVA), who is a serial debtor to many business people and friends.

Once the ANC conference started, the extent of strategy, funding and tactic that informed the Dlamini-Zuma campaign became clear. It was well directed and loud. But in the end, she lost because Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza appears to have thrown his weight behind Ramaphosa in a deal that clarified just as the sun set on Monday.