Motlanthe's name was left out for both the position of ANC president and deputy president by the party's biggest province, KwaZulu-Natal, and by the ANC Women's League.
Both KwaZulu-Natal and the women's league nominated Zuma and businessperson Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC's top posts. ANC provinces were expected to finalise their branch nominations by end of business on Friday.
Motlanthe faces the possibility that if he loses in Mangaung some within the Zuma camp could ask that he steps down as the country's deputy president early next year.
But some pro-Zuma lobbyists said he could be allowed to finish his term in office because he would have little over a year of it left before the elections.
Five ANC leaders close to Zuma told the M&G this week the decision to drop Motlanthe from their list came after he rejected the offer by Zuma supporters to continue as ANC deputy president and not contest the position of president. So far, the ANC Youth League is the only structure that has officially nominated Motlanthe to serve as ANC president.
Although Motlanthe is expected to receive the nomination from other provinces such as Limpopo, the Western Cape, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, Zuma supporters believe the chances are slim that he will topple their man.
Intent to challenge the president
A number of senior ANC leaders – including struggle veteran and former Rivonia trialist Andrew Mlangeni – were allegedly sent to convince Motlanthe not to contest the position of ANC president. Separately, senior Cosatu leaders with the same proposal approached Motlanthe. He turned the offers down, however, saying ANC branches should be given the space to exercise their democratic right by nominating their preferred leaders.
This was interpreted by many Zuma supporters as a signal of his intent to challenge the president.
"When he said branches will decide, for us it became clear that he was prepared to challenge Msholozi. He has been [in a] position himself to take over as president. He believed Zuma was finished. Thabo Mbeki used the same tactic of saying we must listen to branches to stand for the third term as ANC president. This is what they do. Once a cadre says that, you must know they want to stand," said a Zuma supporter.
Another said: "He [Motlanthe] has always been part of the plan [of the pro-Zuma camp]. But he became philosophical and academic when we approached him and said a person must first be nominated by the branches before he can accept or decline. People ran out of patience, and when they realised that he was not interested, Cyril [Ramaphosa] was approached.
"At first Cyril was reluctant, saying he came from far with Kgalema in the struggle and he was only prepared to stand if Kgalema was not available for the post. But he has since agreed. Kgalema has lost out and the process has moved to another level now. But he might be elected as an additional member in the new executive committee if he agrees.
His passion is to be a lecturer and develop new cadres at the ANC's political school. He stuck too much to principle and that's why he will lose out. He wanted to defeat the culture of slates in the ANC. Unfortunately, the ANC is governed by slates at the moment. We are going through the phase of slates."
Valuable to the organisation
Eastern Cape ANC spokesperson Mlibo Qoboshiyane – and a vocal Zuma supporter – told the M&G that Motlanthe's downfall had come as a result of his association with expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.
"His latest statement where he defended Malema will have an impact on his chances to be re-elected deputy president … When the organisation took a decision to say we put a stop to this [ill-discipline] and people come out in support, it becomes problematic. Many people took Motlanthe's statement to say the organisation has erred [in expelling Malema]. This is the elective conference. People take everything seriously. Your opinion will be subjected to many interpretations," said Qoboshiyane. He said, if it was his choice, he would still support Motlanthe to serve as Zuma's deputy.
"As far as I can read him, I could see a repository person [sic] who has knowledge. To me, he is still valuable to the organisation. He is glue that binds the organisation together. He is one of the leaders that I hold in high regard. Personally, I think he should be retained but if branches say something, we will respect that," said Qoboshiyane.
A KwaZulu-Natal leader told the M&G this week that the majority of the branches did not nominate Motlanthe because they felt that he acted irresponsibly by not calling Malema and his cohorts to order when they insulted Zuma and other ANC leaders.
"He [Motlanthe] underestimated the power of KwaZulu-Natal as a kingmaker. Nobody can win the conference of the ANC without the support of KwaZulu-Natal. There are those who feel he must go after Mangaung. They say he allowed the youth league to use his name and he never said to them 'not in my name'."
A pro-Motlanthe leader said Zuma's supporters had ditched Motlanthe because they did not want Zuma to be challenged by anyone at the conference.
"The JZ's people approach to the conference is a feudal [one], undemocratic and against the ethos of the ANC and its constitution. Kgalema, like any member of the ANC, has the right to stand for any position. It can't be right that some positions are ring-fenced and are no-go areas because there is a tribal leader on the throne. They started off their campaign saying Kgalema must not stand against Zuma. They said to him do not stand because you're guaranteed a position. He refused and said to them: 'I will not be part of arrangements. I do not want any backroom arrangement. It is against democracy. It usurps the powers of the branches. If ANC members nominate me then so be it.' The JZ people are vindictive."