Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will challenge President Jacob Zuma for the ANC presidency at the ruling party's Mangaung electoral conference in spite of overwhelming branch support for the incumbent.
"It's not about if he will win or lose, it's about principle now. He will challenge the old man on principle to show we are angry with the way the country is going," a source close to Motlanthe's campaign told the M&G on Sunday.
Following provincial nominations ahead of Mangaung, Motlanthe has only garnered 863 out of 3 384 – a little over 25% – of branch nomination votes for ANC president, with Zuma netting the rest.
He was nominated by Gauteng, Limpopo and the Western Cape, and also received a nod from the ANC Youth League, which makes him eligible to run against Zuma should he choose to do so.
But this could be a futile challenge as Zuma has all but been named victor.
'Vote for change'
But the source, who demanded anonymity, was adamant the deputy president had a chance of winning in Mangaung."There is still time for comrades to come to their senses and vote for change," the source said.
This view was echoed last week by another vocal Motlanthe support block – the ANC Youth League.
Acting league president Ronald Lamola told the Sunday Times that if Motlanthe failed to challenge Zuma in Mangaung, it would be like "saying everything has been fine".
Lamola also said Motlanthe had a chance of beating Zuma as delegates could be convinced in Mangaung of changing their allegiance.
"We are confident he will challenge Zuma. Comrade Kgalema is a disciplined leader who understands he has a responsibility to serve when ANC structures call on him to do so," league spokesperson Khusela Sangoni-Khawe told the M&G on Sunday.
'He will be guided'
With less than a week to go until the beginning of the conference on December 16, Motlanthe has maintained a stony silence about his intentions.
"I don't understand why the deputy president must continue to answer these questions," Thabo Masebe, Motlanthe's spokesperson, told the M&G when questioned if the deputy would be running for the position of party president.
"He will be guided by the branches of the ANC and by what the electoral commission of the party tells him after they consolidate nominations from all ruling party branches."
The ANC's electoral commission will inform conference attendees as to how many and which candidates have been nominated for leadership positions in the party.
The commission will also inform those nominated, and the onus will then rest with the nominees to accept or not.
"If he is approached he will make the necessary decision when the time comes," Masebe said.
Taking Zuma on
Even though the deputy president's refusal to clarify his position on the issue might suggest an unwillingness to go up against Zuma in Mangaung, there are several reasons as to why Motlanthe might throw his hat into the ring.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions has in the past called for Motlanthe to be retained as deputy president to maintain continuity in the ANC's leadership.
Also, businessman and former ANC secretary general Cyril Ramaphosa is the frontrunner for the ANC deputy presidency, and the longer Motlanthe remains silent about his intentions, the more the chance of him returning as Zuma's deputy diminish.
Ramaphosa received almost 2 000 provincial nomination votes – as well as the backing from the ANC women's and veteran's leagues – to become deputy president in December.
For Motlanthe, going up against Zuma and losing holds a small risk. It could spell the end of his political career, but as a former president of South Africa, he is entitled to all benefits attached to the status, such as a lifelong pension and flights on national carrier South African Airways.
He served as president from September 2008 to June 2009 following the ousting of Thabo Mbeki, and Motlanthe made it clear he was not interested in returning to the top job "by arrangement".
This is not the first time a ruling party leader stood for a leadership position in the face of overwhelming odds.
Former ANC and South African Communist Party leader Harry Gwala challenged ruling party veteran Walter Sisulu for the position of deputy president at the ANC conference in Durban in 1990, even though Sisulu was favoured for victory – and eventually won.
According to excerpts from Ebrahim Harvey's biography on the deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography, Motlanthe is said to be fond of Gwala's decision to challenge Sisulu, and he apparently sees the contest as a lesson for the ANC in how democracy works.