Even with firm support from the ANC Youth League and the majority of ruling party branches in Gauteng and Limpopo – as well as a measure of support from the North West and the Western Cape – Motlanthe remains guarded about the likelihood of a challenge to Zuma, and this is hindering his prospects.
One month away from the elective conference, Zuma – as the incumbent – is already showing signs that he expects to be re-elected.
Speaking at a rally in the Eastern Cape, Zuma said there would be a "change of gear" post Mangaung in the ANC's approach towards discipline.
"There will be a change of gear when we return from Mangaung, because we realise that when you merely talk to a person they take it for granted this organisation is full of idiots," he said.
While Zuma's confidence can’t be attributed solely to Motlanthe’s relative absence from the campaign trail, it is certainly helping Zuma and doing his deputy a disservice.
Motlanthe has largely been keeping within the ANC tradition of allowing ruling party branches to choose their candidate, rather than canvassing for support.
“My position is that nobody must try to canvas for themselves in the run-up to elections. It is up to the will of the branches,” Motlanthe is quoted as saying in Ebrahim Harvey's biography about him.
Campaign by association
However, while Motlanthe has done his best to distance himself from electioneering, any signs that he is indeed in the running have been pounced upon.
At the beginning of November, Motlanthe shared the platform with three known Zuma detractors – ruling party treasurer Matthews Phosa, human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale and ANC youth league deputy president Ronald Lamola – at a rally in the birthplace of ANC struggle icon Oliver Tambo.
It was widely interpreted as the formal beginnings of Motlanthe’s push for the presidency, after he remarked that ANC members should be able to choose the party’s leadership without fear or favour.
"There is no doubt about it that we need renewal or we're going south. It [the Mangaung conference] will represent a tipping point, depending on what happens," Motlanthe told supporters.
But this was not enough to satisfy the appetite of those in search of change at Mangaung, and a campaign by association developed.
“Kgalema is a disciplined cadre and we are very comfortable with his strategy and will even help if needed,” a ruling party source – who requested anonymity but claimed to be at the forefront of the deputy president’s campaign – told the Mail & Guardian.
In the weeks following that appearance, web and social media campaigns bearing the deputy president’s name began gaining momentum.
A website, Forces of Change, calls for a leadership shift at Mangaung, as South Africans “do not have confidence in the leadership of President Zuma”.
It even collates all evidence that is published in the mainstream media that Motlanthe's candidacy for the ANC presidency is not only popular but necessary.
Following the same modus operandi as the website, these accounts promote all causes associated with Motlanthe's candidacy.
The @ANCKgalema feed could easily be mistaken for an official account, with posts that claim he is indeed in the running for the ANC’s top job.
“I have decide to accept the nomination of president of the ANC, a statement will be released. Thank you cadres for putting trust in me,” reads a tweet from October 14.
While this strategy appears to be disingenuous, Motlanthe’s supporters feel it is a necessary and effective way to deliver victory to him in Mangaung.
Juxtaposed with a Zuma campaign (tacit or otherwise) that has seen supporters of the president reportedly storm branch meetings and threaten members with violence, Motlanthe’s circumspection can be seen as much more refined approach.
“In the ANC you don’t stand on a building and scream for people to come follow you. That’s childish and primitive. You’re not even supposed to secretly campaign like Zuma,” the source added.
And while people are actively canvassing in his name, Thabo Masebe, Motlanthe’s spokesperson, claims that Motlanthe is not involved in any campaign.
Motlanthe 'won't be pushed'
“The deputy president has never and will never seek election for higher office within the ANC,” Thabo Masebe, Motlanthe’s spokesperson, told the Mail & Guardian.
“That’s what all ANC members are supposed to be doing and what he will do – that won’t change.
“He [Motlanthe] fulfils positions he is requested to by the people of the movement. He won’t be pushed into campaigning for one group,” he added.
Masebe also downplayed the significance of Motlanthe being seen at public events or associated with Zuma detractors.
“The events you’ve seen him at are merely ones he attends at the behest of the ANC. The deputy president also can’t control who is there and what people he shares the stage with,” he said.
So with two weeks to go until ANC nominations are formally closed at the end of November, there is certainly no clear sign that Motlanthe is running for – or even wants – the ANC presidency.
“I don’t think it’s fair for him to comment and pre-empt anything. He will leave that type of thing for the ANC membership to decide,” Masebe said.
This is an issue for those seeking his election.
As Mangaung grows nearer, Motlanthe needs to offer some sign of having an appetite for a leadership challenge.
And popular as he may be among Zuma detractors, he will need to demonstrate that he deserves the ANC presidency – and that he is more than just a default alternative to the current status quo.
So far there have been no signs of this, and while he waits, and while others campaign on his behalf, the Zuma camp will continue to gain momentum and can rightly expect re-election for the president come mid-December.