Battle for a post-Zuma ANC begins
Approaching the end of his tenure if elected, Jacob Zuma's real test will come after the polls when his alliances unravel and the infighting begins.
ANC president Jacob Zuma will find his second term at the Union Buildings far more difficult than the first. He is expected to face rebellious factions soon after appointing his Cabinet and deputy ministers.
Some of the rebellious factions, excluded from the Cabinet, are likely to coalesce around senior ANC officials.
This means Zuma's attempt to fix the country and leave a legacy will be derailed by party infighting and factional battles. Zuma, like the middle of his predecessor Thabo Mbeki's second term, will find it difficult to govern and his presidency will be closely scrutinised and questioned by his own party.
A veteran ANC MP aptly summed up the internal dynamics within the ruling party after the elections: "Stop living in the past and the present, starting thinking of the future."
For now, there is a strong push to save Zuma and the ANC the embarrassment of mustering less than 60% of the vote for the first time, with party leaders criss-crossing the country to shore up support ahead of the May 7 polls.
A lot of energy and effort are being spent on Zuma's traditional? KwaZulu-Natal stronghold, which in the 2009 election brought in large numbers for the ANC, even though the party's support dipped in other provinces.
None of the factions in KwaZulu-Natal are prepared to raise their heads above the parapet, at least not now. Friend and foe alike are publicly supporting the president, knowing they should not alienate the ANC rank and file, if their ambition is to lead the party in the future.
Although Nkandlagate, the divisions within Cosatu, calls for a "Vote No" by ANC stalwarts and the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are likely to make inroads into the governing party's majority, it is highly unlikely that the ANC will not be returned to power after May 7.
There is also a belief that the opposition's attempts to make mileage out of the Nkandla scandal have merely served to harden positions in the ANC, with unity and the strength of the party at the polls now paramount and more important than infighting.
In terms of the Constitution, Zuma can only serve as head of state for two terms, meaning that he is essentially a lame-duck president after May 7 when he returns as president for a second time, as was the case with Mbeki.
Even Zuma's attempts to use "Project Veritas", with which MP candidates were vetted by former spies for being "on message", and his intelligence network to solidify his position, are unlikely to work in the long term. Ambitions will take priority over a president who is generally accepted to be problematical and dispensable after this election.
The real battle in the ANC will start after Zuma announces his Cabinet, senior ANC leaders said. He will not be able to appoint all his allies in the ANC national executive committee (NEC) to the Cabinet, even if he enlarges his national executive beyond the current 67 ministers and deputy ministers.
Seventy-three percent of current NEC members are not in the Cabinet. What will make it even more difficult for Zuma is that the ANC wants to retain 60% of its current MPs for continuity. There is also a debate proposing that other Cabinet portfolios be merged, such as sports with arts and culture, the planning commission with monitoring and evaluation, and women, children and people with disabilities with social development.
Those who are overlooked will look for new alliances with an eye on securing their own future.
One minister said that Zuma's incessant criticism of the security cluster's handling of Nkandla report means ministers such as Nathi Mthethwa, who ironically saved Zuma in 2005 in the party's national general council from being sidelined over his corruption charges, are most likely to be excluded.
The ANC's secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, whose relationship with Zuma has deteriorated since the ANC's 2012 Mangaung conference, is one of the party officials who may attract the disgruntled.
"The problems with Gwede started about six months before Mangaung because he was not being clear about whose side he was on," a senior ANC source said. "He played both sides."
Mantashe said this week that "there has been an attempt to drive a wedge between me and President Zuma. I am not expecting it to stop."
After the elections and the Cabinet appointments, the current ANC NEC, which has been solidly behind Zuma, is likely to become divided, with no need to protect Number One any longer. The focus will turn to who will lead the ANC in 2017, with new alliances formed and jockeying for position, although Zuma is still eligible to run for a third term as party leader.
With no clear successor as a future ANC president, several ANC leaders are waiting in the wings. Usually, the deputy party president is elected to succeed the incumbent.
But ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa's perceived closeness to Zuma and involvement with the Marikana massacre could count against him if the other factions dominate the party's conference.
Former KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize, who is the current ANC treasurer general, is known to harbour presidential ambitions. Mantashe is also understood to see a role for himself in the country's executive.
Moreover, those in the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal who have decided to bide their time will come out of the woodwork.
They include Bheki Cele and others, who are privately viewed as being part of the anti-Zuma camp in the province, but who have played a strategic game to ensure that, for now at least, they are not seen to be working against Zuma.
They hope, therefore, to be able to count on the support of the masses in the future and not be seen as having betrayed a president, who despite all his faults and controversies, remains popular among a significant majority in the province.
Some within the ANC are pinning their hopes on Zuma's possible recall before his term ends. A pro-Zuma NEC member told the Mail & Guardian that the president would not leave the Union Buildings until after the ANC's 2017 national elective congress.
"Anybody who thinks that [Zuma would leave earlier] is mad," the leader said.
"If he wants a smooth transition, he would wait for 2017, get an NEC that favours him, then say the ANC constitution discourages two centres of power and that he voluntarily resigns."