South Africa's political heavyweight titleholder President Jacob Zuma is clinging to the ropes after being dealt a quick succession of near-fatal blows over the past two weeks.
Zuma has been king of the ring since 2007: dodging rape accusations; incessantly fighting off 783 counts of corruption, racketeering and money-laundering; prevailing after a near loss in the Nkandla matter; sidestepping the backlash from numerous Cabinet reshuffles; knocking down motions of no confidence; and opting for the slow and technical game against state capture.
But a new contender has entered the ring, and it's a fight to the finish -- Zuma is on the backfoot for the first time in his career, stumbling, his legs buckling under him.
His opponent, ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, once the underdog, promised unity in the ANC, organisational renewal, an end to corruption and economic recovery in the pre-fight promos ahead of the party's national conference in December 2017.
Ramaphosa tried to develop a reputation as the people's champion, but is still haunted by a mortifying decision he made in 2012, one which almost ended his political career.
Welcome to the main event: Ramaphosa vs Zuma.
Zuma suffered a first-round loss at the ANC's national conference in December when voting delegates from across the country elected Ramaphosa as party president over Zuma's preferred candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Zuma tried to recover, his supporters forcing a recount of the votes for the top spot and threatening to collapse the conference should the disparity of 24 votes for the secretary-general position be challenged.
It looked like a good start for Zuma in the second round when 36 of the newly-elected national executive committee (NEC) officials emerged from the Dlamini-Zuma's slate as opposed to Ramaphosa's 29. On the top six, Zuma allies Jessie Duarte and Ace Magashule were elected to key positions -- David Mabuza being the wildcard in the middle.
The NEC is the highest decision-making body in the party, so majority support within it would have rendered Ramaphosa almost powerless.
But then came the exodus of Zuma supporters. Perhaps realising that the balance of power in the party was shifting and that Ramaphosa was becoming a clear favourite, Zuma backers began cosying up to their new party president.
Most notably, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, who advocated for Dlamini-Zuma ahead of the conference, is now singing Ramaphosa's praises. Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, a staunch Zuma ally, was seen at Ramaphosa's side during a walkabout at the Duncan Village in the Eastern Cape.
The transition was made under the banner of unity in the party and accepting the decisions of the conference.
With power shifting in the organisation, Ramaphosa backers waited to welcome in the new year before talking about Zuma's removal as state president. The talks began before the NEC's first meeting ahead of their annual January 8 statement.
Ramaphosa backers previously told HuffPost SA that strategies around Zuma's exit were discussed "around the time of the new year" but his camp wanted to keep it "tidy". At the time, there were also reports that Zuma was negotiating an exit deal, one that would see him receiving amnesty over state capture allegations and the ANC or the state footing his legal bills.
Zuma appeared to be on the defensive.
A day before the NEC meeting on January 10, where Zuma's exit was expected to be discussed, the big man succumbed to pressure -- announcing late in the afternoon that he had appointed a judge to head the long-awaited judicial commission of inquiry.
This after more than a year of ongoing court battles which saw Zuma relentlessly oppose the recommendations of former public protector Thuli Madonsela's "State of Capture" report that placed the responsibility of selecting the judge in the hands of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
It is widely believed that Zuma made the last-minute call to eliminate the chance of Ramaphosa's supporters using the prolonged appointment of the inquiry as ammunition to argue for his removal at the meeting.
The National Prosecuting Authority under Shaun Abrahams, who has been criticised as a Zuma crony, then seemingly awoke from its long slumber.
Its Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) took the fight directly to the president's friends, the Gupta family, obtaining a preservation order against Gupta-linked company Trillian and international consultancy firm McKinsey.
Assets to the total of about R1.6-billion were to be seized.
The AFU then continued their onslaught this past weekend when reports surfaced that the AFU had turned its attention to Gupta-linked companies and persons involved in the controversial Estina dairy project in the Free State.
The unit's application directly names Atul Gupta, Duduzane Zuma (the president's son) and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane.
Cash-strapped energy supplier Eskom has been at the centre of state capture allegations with Zuma-aligned Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown responsible for various senior appointments at the parastatal including Brian Molefe, Anoj Singh and Matshela Koko -- all of whom have been implicated in state capture for their role in the awarding of contracts to Gupta-linked entities.
The Ramaphosa offensive on the besieged parastatal over the weekend was swift, his office grabbing away Brown's powers to appoint and remove members of Eskom's Board and executive. The move saw Ramaphosa turf out almost the entire Eskom board, removing Koko and Singh in the process.
Treasury blue-blood Phakamani Hadebe was appointed as interim CEO and the well-respected chairperson of Business Leadership South Africa, Jabu Mabuza, will lead the board.
The NEC announced on Saturday that ANC provincial executive committees (PEC) in KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State had been disbanded.
This follows a series of separate court battles in each of the provinces last year which finally led to similar rulings that their provincial conferences, and therefore their provincial leadership structures, be declared unlawful and void.
Interim structures to "unite and build the movement" would now be put in place until another conference is held.
The provinces served as Zuma strongholds in the run-up to the national conference, their leadership structures comprising of his staunchest allies like Sihle Zikalala, Willies Mchunu and Ace Magashule. With these power structures now disbanded, it leaves a gap for Ramaphosa's men to campaign for control.
Breaking News: the new ANC top leadership resolved that Sihle Zikalala's illegitimate PEC is forthwith disbanded. A Task Team will take over and prepare for a new conference. Hehehe.....the Zupta base is crumbling.— Vusi Khoza (@vusumuzikhoza) January 17, 2018
One of the biggest blows to Zuma took place within the NEC's recent two-day-long meeting on Friday last week. A motion to discuss Zuma's removal was brought by newly elected NEC member David Masondo and was backed by deputy Mminister of agriculture, Bheki Cele.
Sources told HuffPost SA that a committee has now been set up to facilitate the "speedy transition" of Zuma's stepping down. The source said there was little resistance from the NEC on the matter, including from Zuma sympathisers.
"The consensus was that officials must engage [Zuma] on exit plan and time frames," one source said.
The move provides the latest indication that Zuma's support in the ANC's top structures is waning.
This round was a draw.
During the NEC meeting, the party's national working committee (NWC) elections were conducted -- it served as Zuma's last chance to regain some of the lost ground. The NWC is an important body that meets weekly and drives the party's agenda. Control over it is imperative.
A close analysis by HuffPost SA saw no camp claim outright victory in the NWC. Of its 20 members, 11 are predicted to be behind Ramaphosa. These members include, among others: Derek Hanekom, Naledi Pandor, Senzo Mchunu and Angie Motshekga.
On the other side, we have (to name a few): Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Tony Yengeni, Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane and Nathi Mthethwa.
Ramaphosa would have hoped for a landslide victory. As it stands, an even balance could result in prolonged battles over vitals decisions.
THE END IS NIGH
But don't count Zuma out as yet; he is most dangerous when cornered and still has his fists clenched.
Amid everything, Zuma still launched an appeal against the Pretoria High Court's ruling that Abrahams should vacate his office and be replaced within 60 days -- a replacement that is to be made by Ramaphosa because Zuma found to be "conflicted".
The case is of utmost importance to Zuma because, last year, the Supreme Court Supreme Court of Appeal upheld an earlier decision by the High Court that Zuma be prosecuted with 18 charges and 783 counts of fraud, racketeering and money laundering.
The court's decision means it is now the NPA's prerogative to reinstitute the charges against Zuma. So far, Abrahams has been stalling, allowing Zuma extra time to submit additional representations.
With Abrahams gone leaving nobody to protect him, Zuma will likely stand trial.
BREAKING:— Karyn Maughan (@karynmaughan) January 19, 2018
Letters contained in NPA Concourt papers reveal #ShaunAbrahams told President Jacob Zuma's lawyers that the Hawks had tracked down all 218 state witnesses against him in his aborted corruption case.
And all "have confirmed their availability to testify". pic.twitter.com/2g5MBSV77D
Also, the terms of reference for the judicial commission of inquiry have yet to be announced. This is vital. Either, the probe could focus on state capture as defined by Madonsela's report as well as the revelations from the Gupta Leaks or it could also include apartheid-era corruption.
The latter could result in the probe being protracted.
The typical boxing match has a 12-round limit. Can Zuma keep up the fight or is a knock out imminent?
Ramaphosa will have to act swiftly while Zuma is arguably at his weakest. The president of the republic is a master strategist and allowing him too much time to find the slightest gap to retaliate may be disastrous.