The sports minister and ANC head of campaigns had been the undisputed candidate for the powerful job of secretary general among those seeking to replace Zuma with Kgalema Motlanthe. He hopes to take over the running of the party from Gwede Mantashe, who is seen as a key Zuma supporter.
In recent months, however, some of Mbalula's backers privately worried that his campaign would be compromised by the expulsion of his close ally and friend, Julius Malema, from the ANC and its youth wing. His name was then omitted from the leadership nomination lists of ANC provincial executive committees whose other choices reflected a clear anti-Zuma position, including Gauteng, the Northern Cape and North West.
It now appears, however, that his ground campaign may be working. Preliminary nomination figures from the nine ANC provinces confirmed to the Mail & Guardian by both pro- and anti-Zuma sources suggest that Mbalula still enjoys support among the branches that want change.
With counting still incomplete, he has been nominated by 360 branches in the Eastern Cape, 210 in Gauteng, 114 in the Western Cape, 295 in Limpopo, 47 in the Northern Cape, 72 in Free State, 91 in Mpumalanga and 88 out of 124 in North West.
Agitating for a different tempo
Preliminary figures indicate a Motlanthe-Mbalula ticket enjoys majority support in six provinces: Limpopo, North West, the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Western Cape and Gauteng. They also expect support from the ANC Youth League and the veterans' league. KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Mpumalanga are dominated by support for the Zuma-Mantashe ticket.
Substantial minorities for the Zuma ticket in pro-change provinces, however, are now widely seen as giving him the edge.
One name that has been suggested as an alternative to Mbalula for the position of secretary general is that of ANC national executive committee member Joel Netshitenzhe, who is supported by the ANC's provincial executive committee and some branches in Gauteng, but sources close to him said he was unlikely to accept a nomination.
Western Cape ANC provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile, who worked under Mbalula in the youth league, insisted that the sports minister had support from ANC branches across all provinces.
"ANC members – even those who don't agree with us – acknowledge we are in a terrible situation," said Mjongile. "Mbalula is part of a collective agitating for a different tempo."
Zuma's provincial opponents, however, continue to complain of interference in the nominations process.
The Constitutional Court, meanwhile, has agreed to hear the merits of an application to set aside the election of the Free State provincial executive committee. It was brought by six ANC members opposed to premier Ace Magashule, a key Zuma ally. The matter will be heard on November 29.
The case is likely to have far-reaching implications for the ANC's national conference in Mangaung next month. If the court declares the provincial conference null and void, it might force Luthuli House to postpone the conference to next year sometime.