Ousted ANC Youth League treasurer Pule Mabe, once a close ally of expelled league president Julius Malema, has emerged as a workhorse for the campaign to re-elect ANC president Jacob Zuma at the party's conference in Mangaung in December.
His public backing of Zuma comes at a time when the two competing groups in the ANC are finalising their lists in what is becoming a clear battle between Zuma and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe.
Mabe was pushed out of the youth league after members of the league's national executive committee passed a vote of no confidence in him during a secret vote in May. ANC officials, who still recognise him as the legitimate treasurer general of the league, reversed that decision. However, the league has forbidden him from attending any of its executive meetings.
Mabe has crisscrossed the country over the past few months, lobbying for Zuma's re-election and attempting to persuade undecided ANC members why the embattled president should be retained.
Supporters of both Zuma and Motlanthe have been working hard behind the scenes to infiltrate the support bases of each group.
Zuma's supporters have been on the ground in pro-Motlanthe provinces such as Limpopo, the Northern Cape, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape to weaken his support.
On the other hand, Motlanthe's supporters have been on a charm offensive in pro-Zuma provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State and Mpumalanga. Lobby groups from both sides convened meetings in Johannesburg and Durban last week to fine-tune their strategies to ensure their preferred candidates emerged victorious.
Motlanthe's supporters agreed that he should stand for the presidency with Human Settlement Minister Tokyo Sexwale as his deputy, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula as secretary general and that ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa should retain his position. The group left the positions of chairperson and deputy secretary general for the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal to decide. The names of premier Zweli Mkhize and provincial transport minister Senzo Mchunu have been mentioned for the position of national chairperson. The Eastern Cape was likely to propose the name of provincial social development minister Pemmy Majodina for the position of deputy secretary general.
Zuma's supporters decided to retain him as president with Motlanthe as his deputy, Gwede Mantashe as secretary general, Baleka Mbete as chairperson and Planning Minister Trevor Manuel as treasurer. The group concluded that if Motlanthe contests Zuma's position, they will push for ANC national executive committee member and businessman Cyril Ramaphosa to assume the role of deputy president.
ANC sources familiar with discussions in the province told the Mail & Guardian that the Northern Cape has now come out in support of Zuma after a meeting of top five leaders, regional chairpersons and secretaries held a week ago in Kimberley.
A provincial ANC leader told the M&G this week that the reason ANC chairperson John Block apparently agreed to back Zuma was because he had been promised that his fraud and corruption charges would be dropped if he swayed the province in Zuma's favour. Block was not immediately available for comment.
Staunch Zuma supporters
The leader cited the recent withdrawal of charges of fraud and corruption against KwaZulu-Natal legislature speaker Peggy Nkonyeni and the provincial economic development minister Mike Mabuyakhulu, in a case linked with Block's. Nkonyeni and Mabuyakhulu are staunch Zuma supporters.
A further carrot that was dangled for Block was that he could become premier of the Northern Cape when the current premier, Hazel Jenkins, retires owing to illness.
In an interview this week, Mabe told the M&G: "I think he [Zuma] should be retained. We need a stable organisation. When we turn around an organisation, we don't do this through change. You don't stabilise an institution through change. We need stability. At the right time we will pronounce. I don't think the members of ANC made a mistake in electing JZ as ANC president in Polokwane."
Mabe said he supported Zuma for the purpose of maintaining unity and stability in the party.
"We are 100 years old because we have been united since 1912. We continue to renew ourselves. The call for renewal is back to basics. Renewal is supposed to be understood as back to basics; a sense of organisational discipline. We need continuity and change.
"The ANC has survived like this. The generational mix has always existed. We need continuity while we introduce a new set of cadres. Those who have been around will be able to teach the new cadres. Every member should be a campaigner for organisational unity.
"The current leadership should be respected so that in pursuing [the] resolutions of Polokwane, we are not side-tracked and we continue to remind society what the ANC is about. We must defend the organisation and its gains.
"We are not only leading our members, but society as well. We should be telling people what we are going to do. We must continue to have dialogue with our people. We should allow the organisation to guide us on nominations," said Mabe.
An ANC leader sympathetic to Zuma's re-election said the pro-Zuma factions' campaign strategy was to preach the unity of the organisation and to desist from talking about individuals.
"We are talking about the organisation and are moving away from talking about individuals. We talk more about a stable and united ANC. We talk more about transformation.
"We knew JZ was polygamous. The message of a united ANC should be preached across all provinces. This thing of saying we are targeting particular provinces is destroying the ANC. The ANC is one," said the leader, who was not authorised to comment officially.
Not everyone shares Mabe's view on Zuma's re-election. Delivering a political report during the Johannesburg regional general council last Sunday, regional chairperson and Johannesburg mayor Parks Tau reiterated Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile's call for leadership change in the ANC.
Tau was believed to be arguing strongly against the retention of Zuma as president.
Eye of the needle
"Once again borrowing from [writer and revolutionary] Amilcar Cabral, the best sons and daughters of our people must lead our party. We believe that our leaders must pass through the eye of the needle and represent the values and character of our movement and society we seek to create," said Tau. "When selecting our candidates and electing leadership for this glorious movement narrow and sentimental considerations must not blind us.
"The leadership of the ANC must, beyond Mangaung, have the capacity and will to deal with the continuing ill-discipline in our movement, in a manner that is consistent, fair and decisive.
"It must be a leadership that does not continue to allow the decline in our organisational practices and public standing. We must reclaim the year of moral high ground we earned as a movement, knowing very well that leadership at all time is earned," said Tau.
Nominations for leadership positions will be opened in the ANC from next month. Both groups will be carefully watching the conference of trade union federation Cosatu, the ANC's tripartite alliance partner, for signs of the leadership it supports.
Cosatu has previously said it did not want to prescribe leadership to the ANC, but it is deeply divided between those who support Zuma and those who do not.