Although the ANC has taken a final decision that President Jacob Zuma will be the face of its campaign and return for a second term, the party has been rattled by information that in KwaZulu-Natal – Zuma's strongest base – regional leaders had planned to approach him and ask him not to stand for a second term in the presidency.
The Nkandla scandal, in which R206-million was spent on Zuma's private home, is said to have made him deeply unpopular and the booing he was subjected to during Nelson Mandela's memorial service in Johannesburg last month was embarrassing and alarming for a party heading into elections.
The party has long sought to portray Zuma's support base in KwaZulu-Natal as solid and unassailable, but the low-key attempts to raise the question of his perceived potential liability to the ANC during the elections by regional leaders paints a different picture.
The concern over some KwaZulu-Natal regional leaders' manoeuvring has, however, reached the upper echelons of the party and was raised by ANC Free State chairperson Ace Magashule at the national executive committee (NEC) meeting in Nelspruit two weeks ago, according to two NEC sources.
Some of the regions suspected of supporting the idea to dump Zuma are Lower South Coast, Harry Gwala and Moses Mabhida. But when interviewed by the Mail & Guardian, none of the regional leaders would admit to the plan.
A party insider in the province said regional leaders are torn: they do not want to be seen as blind loyalists who did not act when the interests of the party were at stake, but feared marginalisation for pursuing a motion that would not enjoy popular support. Coming from Zuma's own province, the regional secretaries believed such a motion would carry weight as it would not be seen to be motivated by regional or tribal considerations.
After the NEC meeting, the ANC reaffirmed its support for Zuma to return for another state presidential term. Party leaders say it is now too late to take any action without confusing their membership or losing face publicly.
The party has worked hard for the past few months to quell the rebellion bubbling away about a suitable candidate for the presidency.
The M&G has learned that, during a discussion about the spending on Nkandla at the NEC meeting, Magashule sent a stern warning to anti-Zuma lobbyists.
"Ace said there are people who are meeting and engineering to put together all these perceived scandals and use them against the president," said an NEC member who attended the meeting. The member said the scandals included Nkandla and the landing of wedding guests of the Guptas (who are friends of Zuma) at the Waterkloof Air Force Base prior to a family wedding.
"He [Magashule] said there are people who don't want Zuma to stand again as state president and some of them are here at the meeting; they're NEC members. He didn't name anyone, but he said he's prepared to meet officials [the party's top six leaders] and give them names of people who are responsible for that campaign."
But when questioned by the M&G, Magashule denied speaking about those who do not want Zuma to return as state president at the NEC meeting. "In the first place, I arrived late at that meeting and I never said anything like that. I contributed only to the January 8 debate," he said. Magashule did admit, however, that he had told fellow NEC members who mentioned the anti-Zuma lobby "not to deal with perceptions, but I never got into that debate".
In defending Zuma, his allies in the NEC lashed out at those discussing in secret meetings the possibility of having a state president other than Zuma. North West ANC chairperson Supra Mahumapelo is said to have remarked at the NEC meeting that those lobbying for support to remove Zuma were "driven by self-interest and want to create problems for the ANC".
"Supra said some of these people know that the term of office is coming to an end and they're not guaranteed deployment in cosy positions," said the NEC member.
"He said people want to create an environment that complicates things for the ANC."
Mahumapelo declined to comment, saying he could not share internal discussions of the party with the media. A Luthuli House insider said KwaZulu-Natal, despite its large size, would find it difficult to convince other ANC provinces to back a presidential candidate other than Zuma.
"If that thing is not happening in Gauteng, I don't see it succeeding anywhere else. Gauteng is the only province that's got the capacity and the courage to raise such issues."
Immunity from prosecution
An ANC NEC member from the Western Cape said he heard about the matter as a rumour allegedly emanating from KwaZulu-Natal that the proposal was for Zuma to forego the presidency in return for immunity from prosecution.
But this was dismissed by the NEC member, who said it was almost impossible for the ANC to campaign without Zuma as its presidential candidate or to remove him after the elections with a promise of protection from possible prosecution. The member said that the rumours were linked to KwaZulu-Natal's so-called 20-year succession plan, which the ANC has already distanced itself from.
A KwaZulu-Natal ANC and alliance insider said, even if some in the province believed Zuma should step down, they would be "very clandestine" about it. "The fact is in our individual corners many desire that it could happen," he said.
"There's a fear that the ANC risks getting a lower percentage at this year's elections because of all the scandals around him. People feel that everything is now about Zuma, not that the ANC is a bad party," the insider said. At least two ANC regional leaders in KwaZulu-Natal who have been linked to those calling for Zuma to relinquish the presidential candidacy for a second term this week denied involvement.
One of the leaders, from the Lower South Coast region, blamed the media for its lack of confidence in Zuma. "There's no such thing [as a plot to unseat Zuma]. I wouldn't hide it if there was such a thing," said the leader.
He said his region had proposed that Zuma get a second term as president of the ANC before the Mangaung conference.
"Even in Polokwane, we were the ones who said an ANC president should be the president of the country. That is not even up for debate … it's not even realistic. We would have to change the ANC constitution [for Zuma not to stand for a second term]," he said.
The leader said he suspected there are people who are "after Zuma" and wanted to create an impression that he is not well liked.