Magashule this week declared his firm support for a second term for President Jacob Zuma in an interview with the Mail & Guardian. Magashule's 100% Zuma declaration comes as the party's succession debate, ahead of its elective conference in Mangaung in December, becomes increasingly heated.
Calling the president "an intellectual" and saying it was "people like Zuma that made sure that the doors of learning are open", Magashule asked why the president should not make himself available to stand for the ANC's top post.
With only four months left before the conference, lobbying for the party's top positions have intensified. This is despite the party's national executive committee resolution, which forbid members from discussing leadership issues in public until the official nomination process starts in October.
The M&G has also been reliably told that a group of ANC veterans is planning to approach Zuma to ask him to step down and make way for his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, as they say Zuma has damaged the image of the ANC since his election to the top position in 2007.
But Magashule, a close Zuma ally and an elected national executive committee member, made it clear that he wanted Zuma to serve a second term as ANC president.
"I am behind President Jacob Zuma," he said. "Why must he step down and not avail himself for nomination? I am actually 100% behind the top six [officials] elected in Polokwane. I have absolute confidence in the national officials.
"However, there are provinces that may persuade us to say there are better candidates than Zuma and the current top six. But it must be the branches who say that. We should not impose on branches who to elect.
"President Zuma has done very well for the country. He has sacrificed his life more than us. Like others he went into exile when the ANC was banned.
"It is painful when people tell us that Zuma is not educated. Like other struggle stalwarts he was denied education. It is the likes of people like Zuma that made sure that the doors of learning are open. People like him were not paid to go to jail or exile. I will always respect such a leadership," said Magashule.
Zuma has come under criticism recently after it was revealed that his government was channelling more than R1-billion towards establishing "Zumaville", the first new town to be built in democratic South Africa, just 3.2km from his homestead in Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal.
Magashule defended Zuma, saying that before his presidency, South Africa never had big plans.
"This is not the president who said urban development should be the only focus. He ensured that there was rural development too. He believes we must have malls, schools, clinics and shops in rural areas.
"He also believes that a place like Nkandla should also be developed. He is teaching us that rural development can happen all over the country. As Free State executive we are planning to go there and study how rural development works," said Magashule. "It was an intellectual like Zuma who said we needed the national planning commission. It was Zuma who came up with performance monitoring and evaluation in government. Zuma is the person we are supposed to have."
Zuma not a suitable leader
However, senior ANC leaders who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity believe Zuma was not a suitable leader for the ANC. One senior ANC leader confirmed to the M&G this week that the plan to approach Zuma to stand aside was one of many options ANC leaders opposed to his re-election were considering.
The leader said Zuma and his political allies are known as the "group of desparadoes" because they appeared to be willing to do anything in their power to hold on to the ANC's steering wheel. The leader said: "That door is not closed. There are much stronger candidates emerging like Kgalema Motlanthe and Tokyo Sexwale. But we want them to work together, it makes more sense."
The eThekwini ANC regional chairperson, Bheki Ntshangase, on Thursday publicly endorsed Zuma for a second term, but the M&G was told by the ANC insiders that the regional executive committee was divided over support for Zuma.
"They don't see eye to eye. They are fighting," said one leader. Another said: "We are going to divide the eThekwini region. They will not go to Mangaung united. The fractures are already appearing."
The eThekwini region is the largest ANC region in the country.
The group of anti-Zuma lobbyists is hoping to have at least 20% of the KwaZulu-Natal delegates on their side come December.
The campaign to re-elect Zuma received a major blow this week when the ANC's top six ruled that the OR Tambo regional conference, which was dissolved and the results withheld two weeks ago, must resume and the results announced. The conference will resume on the weekend beginning on August 25.
The results of the OR Tambo conference that were leaked to the media show that the anti-Zuma camp had won by a slight margin.
The OR Tambo region is the second largest after eThekwini and makes up the majority of delegates from the Eastern Cape, who will be represented in Mangaung.
In the North West, ANC leaders are expected push to have deputy secretary general, Thandi Modise, elected as national chairperson. However the pro-Zuma group have, according to sources, promised the position to either Magashule or his Mpumalanga counterpart David Mabuza – also a firm Zuma backer.