When Kgalema Motlanthe decided not to run for deputy president and instead to contend only for the top job, he knew that he would lose – and lose badly.
One of his objectives here, according to people who lobbied to support him, was to confront the ANC with the enormity of its Jacob Zuma problem. When campaigners for change speak of "a principled stance", this is what they mean. Angry and frustrated at all the scandal surrounding the president and worried about its effect on the party but unable to say so himself, Motlanthe found another way to deliver the message.
Without him in place there can be no pretence that the party is unified around its president. Yes, the Zuma slate won a 75% majority, but it left outside the big, hot Mangaung tent much of Gauteng, where so much leadership capital and actual capital is concentrated, as well as important parts of the Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Limpopo.
A TNS poll ahead of Mangaung confirmed what some in the ANC were saying. Zuma's approval rating in urban areas declined from 55% to 49% in the year of Nkandla, the "spy tapes" and the textbook debacle. Motlanthe's shot up from 49% to 67%, although he did very little but allow supporters to declare him an alternative.
Luthuli House's own research, say three senior officials briefed on it, suggests that an ANC going into the 2014 national elections with Zuma as its main face will see a significant ebbing of support, some of it to a growing stay-at-home fraction of the electorate and some to an energised opposition, particularly in Gauteng and the Eastern and Northern Cape.
The warnings in the poll data are backed by other evidence that Zuma, in rescuing KwaZulu-Natal for the ANC, has moved dangerously far away from urban and middle class voters and other parts of South Africa. He told traditional leaders that "clever blacks" were losing touch with their roots, appearing to confirm suspicions that he is willing to move a party founded by an educated, anti-tribalist African elite towards ethnic, regional and traditionalist politics.
Even some of his most important lieutenants seem to see the problem – and to identify Ramaphosa as the solution. During the past weekend's intense lobbying, KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary Sihle Zikalala told Business Day that Ramaphosa "will help the ANC connect and relate better with the business sector, intellectuals and younger voters, especially those born after … 1990". You couldn't ask for a clearer statement of the thinking behind the Zuma slate: the president for the countryside, his deputy for everyone else.
For his part, Ramaphosa did an even more convincing impression of a man who doesn't want the job than Motlanthe did. He made no public case for himself and, even when frontally attacked over his efforts to secure police intervention at Marikana, barely defended himself.
According to people who worked on a deal between the two, Ramaphosa said he didn't want to go head to head with his National Union of Mineworkers successor. He refused to confirm his candidacy until late on Sunday afternoon, when it was clear that Motlanthe would go for broke.
By mid-week, talk of their mutual respect had some anti-Zuma delegates muttering about a secret deal to secure Motlanthe's return. More sober talk among senior figures was about maximising any Ramaphosa dividend; there is real uncertainty about the 18 months leading up to the national elections.
The process is fraught with risk for Ramaphosa. First, there is the question of his business interests: Shanduka has been in expansion mode and is exposed to considerable debt. "Some felt he was reluctant because he wanted to consolidate his empire before handing its management to a blind trust. Second, there is what one party elder described as "the difference between what Cyril stands for and what Zuma stands for". In other words, can two men who are complementary in that they attract different voters actually live with each other in government and Luthuli House? Can the constitutionalist businessperson avoid contamination by association with a scandal-prone, authoritarian traditionalist?
Gwede Mantashe has made public what lobbyists were saying privately in the run-up to the vote: Ramaphosa in government would function much as Thabo Mbeki did under Nelson Mandela, as a "de facto prime minister" driving the primary executive functions of the government and using the national development plan (with which Ramaphosa was intimately involved) as the primary policy framework. It might suit Ramaphosa better to do so only after 2014. But that choice could be very tricky. If Motlanthe steps down, as those around him feel he will, Ramaphosa will have to step up – or take the risk of allowing someone else, possibly the ambitious Baleka Mbete, to hold his place for him.
Meanwhile, Zuma will continue being Zuma as the other elections, the ones we all get to vote in, bear down. The ANC has never before had to consider seriously the electoral effect of its internal party choices. Winkling Ramaphosa out of the boardroom was smart, but the game has only just begun.