Just days after the nominations process for the ANC's leadership officially opened, rumours were swirling that President Jacob Zuma's supporters were trying to convince Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe not to challenge Zuma for the party leadership at the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung.
In exchange, Zuma's camp will offer Motlanthe the position of president of the country after the 2014 election. This was according to a report by the Star on Thursday. But political analysts questioned the benefits of such a deal for the party and the country at large.
Independent sources confirmed to the Star that Zuma's allies planned to create two centres of power with Zuma running the party while Motlanthe governs the country.
"Zuma wants to remain as ANC president and allow Kgalema to be president after 2014. Kgalema's deputy would be a woman, Nkosazana [Dlamini-Zuma] in particular. When she comes back from the AU, she will be the most powerful woman, like Hillary Clinton," the source told the paper.
The sources also said the Zuma camp had plans for yet another Cabinet reshuffle after Mangaung, which would see a handful of ministers axed. Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale and North West Premier Thandi Modise were said to be among those in the firing line.
"Tokyo is gone, and so are Paul, Angie, Cassel, Thandi and [deputy health minister] Gwen Ramokgopa," he said.
A source said Zuma wanted to act decisively "because he can't afford to go down in history as the worst president".
Although it was possible for the ANC to put forward a candidate other than the party president for the role of national president, this seems unlikely.
Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, was sceptical.
"We are operating in the world of spin and kite-flying. What one can establish from the fact that its in the media is that there are some people who want Zuma elected who think that might be a good idea. How many of those people there are and how important they are is anyone's guess," he said.
Friedman said that, contrary to public perceptions, the behind-the-scenes negotiations for ANC president were not out of character for the ANC. Instead, it represented a return to "the old way of doing things".
"There was no election for ANC president between 1949 and 2007. The leadership used to get together in back rooms and decide who to choose," he said.
Rather than being the norm in the party, the horse-trading that occurred at the ANC's last elective conference in Polokwane was a departure from long-held traditions.
Friedman said one advantage of the type of back room negotiations, now rumoured to be taking place, was that there would be no "fight on the floor" at Mangaung. Instead, there would be a smooth transition from one president to the other.
"I'm just not sure why it's so important for Zuma to be president of the ANC and not president of the country," he said.
Strategy 'highly unlikely'
Political analyst Karima Brown dismissed the rumours out of hand, saying it was "highly unlikely" that those supporting Zuma would agree to him remaining the party president and not remaining the country's president.
"There's very little tolerance in the ANC for two centres of power. We've seen that with the removal of [former president] Thabo Mbeki. I would not give any credence to these reports, more so because they are from so called unnamed sources," she said.
Brown said there had been no indication from the Zuma camp that they would consider such a move.
"This sounds like the ABZ [Anyone but Zuma] camp's plan B, not the Zuma camp's plan B. This could be their way of accommodating Zuma, given that they can't discount the fact that he has considerable support – if not majority support – in the party."
A decision deferred
Independent political analyst Protas Madlala was also doubtful. "I really don't buy that report," Madlala told the Mail & Guardian.
Madlala said such a deal would only postpone the problem of selecting a new leader for the party and the country. At the same time it would create greater factionalism and division within the ANC.
The last time allegiances in the party were irreparably split between two strong leaders, the ANC lost a host of members, who broke away to form the Congress of the People.
"It would create tension. Why would you still formalise that?" he asked, adding: "It doesn't make sense to me."
'Sign of desperation'
Political commentator Sipho Seepe said the move was a "sign of desperation" from some lobby groups. Why a pro-Zuma faction should go to the effort to broker a deal with Motlanthe was unclear, he said, as all indications were that Zuma was comfortably ahead of the opposition going into Mangaung.
Seepe described the gambit as "generous but dangerous". On the one hand, both Zuma and Motlanthe would get what they want – Zuma would remain a popular political figure and, as a former president, would still benefit from the privileges the position brings; while Motlanthe would take over the role of president, with all the attendant benefits.
But this, Seepe said, would expose individuals as seeking material gain.
"We must be honest. The battle in the ANC has nothing to do with the high ideals of the ANC. The battle in the ANC has to do with the material resources that the state offers. People would not be fighting so hard if it was not about material gain," he said.
It's unclear what the implications of such a deal would be outside the internal power struggles of the ANC. As Seepe pointed out, the direction of the country was not so much dependent on the individual who held the office of the president as it was on the ruling party itself.
"If the policies of the ANC are bankrupt, it doesn't matter whether you have Motlanthe or Zuma [as president] because ultimately, it's about the collective," he said.