Kgalema Motlanthe's communication team gets quite frustrated when one asks the question: Will the deputy president avail himself to stand as a candidate for president of the ANC at the party's Mangaung conference?
It is the million-dollar question that both friend and foe alike would love to have answered. Motlanthe's stock response is that the branches will decide, which does not help anyone. The people around him insist he will stand, but they say he does not feel he needs to use a loud-hailer. They insist that he believes in the principle of giving the branches the power to decide without being influenced by canvassing or lobbying.
We've been here before. Precisely five years ago I asked him the same question just before the ANC's Polokwane conference – when he was secretary general and his name was being touted as a possible deputy president – and he gave me the same response he is giving now.
On speculation that he would be nominated as president or deputy, Motlanthe said such talk was "coffee-house bubbles not worthy of response. I will not even say I will accept if nominated, because that would amount to canvassing. I will cross that bridge when I come to it."
Motlanthe told me then that he had packed his boxes at the ANC's headquarters at Luthuli House and was preparing to exit his office on the understanding that office bearers are only elected for one term and should, therefore, not harbour expectations.
"Once conference convenes in December and we submit our reports, we will thank the membership for having afforded us the opportunity to serve them and then we go," he said.
Five years later, Motlanthe still argues against lobbying – something he stuck to doggedly this year, even when his supporters under the banner of "the forces of change" tried to arrange platforms for him.
"If you have individual leaders who campaign and try to sway others on to their own lists, how are you going to prevent factionalism?" he asked Ebrahim Harvey, author of Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography. The book argues that Motlanthe's falling-out with then-president Thabo Mbeki in 2007 occurred when he learned that Mbeki was going to canvass support for a third term. He told Harvey he was never asked to be on either Mbeki's or Jacob Zuma's lists in 2007, because everyone knew he was opposed to slates.
He was, however, a beneficiary of leadership intervention in 1997 when he was appointed ANC secretary general. But Motlanthe claims that he argued against being parachuted into the position by the top leadership in 1997 because this usurped the constitutional authority of ordinary members and branches.
A debate raged this week about whether he is a truly principled politician or merely a wily one who is playing a wait-and-see game so that he can emerge relatively unscathed if the results go against him. We do not know the answer yet and so will be left to our own devices and prejudices to shape the answer.
But if Motlanthe is indeed committed to letting democracy play itself out, it means he must go ahead and stand for the presidency in two weeks' time, even if the indications are that he is on a hiding to nothing.
A close associate of his recently told the Mail & Guardian that Motlanthe liked to use the example of former ANC and South African Communist Party leader Harry Gwala, who opted to challenge Walter Sisulu at the ANC conference in Durban in 1991, even when the latter appeared to be the popular choice. "Gwala said he had to stand to demonstrate how democracy works," said Motlanthe's associate. "The ANC constitution says any member in good standing can stand for any position of leadership. He wanted to teach people that leadership by arrangement is wrong. We must allow the delegates to decide."
The associate also used the example of African Union Commissioner Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who also declined nomination to stand as the ANC's national chairperson when she was approached by a Zuma lobbyist in 2007, shortly before the Polokwane conference.
"They assured her that she was guaranteed the position if she stood as national chairperson, but they would not support her candidacy as deputy president," the associate said. "But she told them that the ANC Women's League had nominated her as deputy president and she would respect its wishes. She lost against Motlanthe but … she continued to stay in the ANC and work well with Kgalema in Cabinet when he became acting president after Thabo Mbeki was removed."
But if Motlanthe remains stubborn, he could be turfed out of the top leadership of the ANC in two weeks' time. This week he told Business Day that he had no problem with that because it would allow him time to focus on political education – a subject close to his heart.
Yet a careful reading of his comments about the ANC recently show that he is deeply worried about the deteriorating culture in the 100-year-old party and would have liked to be involved in steering it in a new direction. In his view, losing out means he would have to watch it "self-destruct" from the sidelines. There is a view, shared by those who feel pain at his impending loss, that the sense of comfort he should feel is that he would not be in charge when the party "implodes".
But, instead of being cynical, they could perhaps pray that the words of one James Motlatsi come true. The former National Union of Mineworkers president is quoted in the Harvey biography as saying that Motlanthe is needed in organisations only when things are not going well – which in this context could mean that, even if he loses in Mangaung, he could well be called upon to help the ANC when matters reach a crisis point. But that's an optimistic view.