Zuma received 2 983 votes while Motlanthe received 991, signalling a spectacular failure of the campaign launched by a lobby calling themselves the Forces of Change to unseat him.
In a cruel twist of fate for Motlanthe, he remained in the front row of the packed conference tent as the victor ascended to the stage to deafening cheers from the jubilant crowd.
While Zuma has been immersed in controversy as state president, with a series of scandals and negative publicity dogging his administration, his popularity in the ANC solidified in the past few months as his supporters pulled out all the stops to secure his second term.
It remains to be seen whether the party victory guarantees that he would top the ANC ticket in the 2014 national election or be replaced by the man who made a phenomenal return to politics at Mangaung.
Zuma's partnering with business tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa – who has been absent from active politics since the mid-nineties – proved to be a winning combination which outsmarted the Forces of Change campaign whose candidate for president was a reluctant contender from the start.
The ANC's 53rd national conference will probably be remembered more for Motlanthe's fall rather than Zuma's epic victory. Motlanthe's lack of enthusiasm and unwillingness to engage in discussions or campaigning around the leadership battle disorientated the Forces of Change.
His strategy to accept nominations for all the positions for which he was proposed caught his supporters off guard. Then, when nominations were announced, he withdrew his candidacy for deputy president, guaranteeing his exit from the ANC top brass.
He still stands a chance of being elected to the ANC national executive committee if Zuma's supporters decide not to punish him for remaining steadfast in contesting the presidency.
The rest of the winners
Ramaphosa won the position of deputy president with 3 018 votes – even higher than Zuma's tally – beating Mathews Phosa who received 470 votes and Tokyo Sexwale with 463 votes.
Gwede Mantashe beat Fikile Mbalula with 3 058 to 901 votes to retain the position of secretary general. Baleka Mbete also retained her position of national chairperson with 3 010 against Thandi Modise's 939.
Jessie Duarte was elected unopposed as deputy secretary general. ANC KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Zweli Mkhize won the position of national treasurer with 2 988 against Paul Mashatile's 961.
After the votes were announced, the ANC chaplain prayed for the losing slate. It was a face-saving exercise and an attempt at bridging unity ... but history will never remember the ANC's 2012 Mangaung conference in that way. – Newsfire