The hardliners in the ANC, who this week were preparing a nasty legal battle with public protector Thuli Madonsela, will now direct their war efforts towards the opposition parties calling for President Jacob Zuma's head.
Initially, some senior leaders sympathetic to Zuma met on Tuesday this week in anticipation of a court battle with the public protector had she accused the president of misleading Parliament.
They were primarily concerned about the release of the report eight weeks before the elections.
But Thuli Madonsela instead excused Zuma, saying: "While his conduct could accordingly be legitimately construed as misleading Parliament, it appears to have been a bona fide mistake and I am accordingly unable to find that his conduct was in violation of … the executive ethics code."
By late Wednesday afternoon, it was not clear whether the party was still considering the legal route, even though a government official who was intimately involved with the mission to save Zuma in 2009 indicated that the ANC could back down on its legal challenge.
He said the party couldn't stand by while the president was under attack.
'Not the final word'
MK Military Veterans' Association chairperson Kebby Maphatsoe said the public protector's report is "not a final word and the ANC can go and challenge it in court … Thuli is not a court of law, government has made its own investigation".
Maphatsoe said the timing of the report's release was playing into politics.
The ANC in the Eastern Cape declared that it "is fully behind President Jacob Zuma's candidacy and presidency," and that the public protector "found no wrongdoing by the president or the presidency as recklessly alleged by the opposition parties".
But other senior ANC leaders who felt that the party was again trying to save the president at all costs were equally ready to raise the electoral costs "and the breakdown of public trust" caused by efforts to defend Zuma.
A provincial ANC leader told the Mail & Guardian that the hardliners were in the majority and were dictating the party's view on Nkandla and other issues affecting the president. The leader also indicated that the meeting on Tuesday was not an official national executive committee (NEC) meeting "but a handful of those who would do anything to save the president".
A member of the NEC – the second highest decision-making body in the party – said the Tuesday meeting was attended by party leaders involved in the government's security cluster.
"From what I gather it is to simply rubbish the report and the approach taken by Madonsela," the source said. "The government says Madonsela's arguments are flawed and based on misinterpretation of the National Key Points Act and Cabinet policy."
Another source, a senior ANC MP, said it was unlikely that Parliament would be reconvened to enable Zuma to report back as directed by Madonsela.
Madonsela said Zuma must report to the National Assembly within 14 days on action he has taken regarding the report on the Nkandla upgrades.
Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko has also indicated that she will submit a formal request to the speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu, to recall the National Assembly as a matter of urgency to initiate impeachment proceedings against Zuma in terms of Section 89 of the Constitution.
She said the DA would also be studying the report closely and tabling substantive motions against all other ministers who have been implicated in wrongdoing in the report.
ANC communications head Lindiwe Zulu said the ANC needed time to study the report.
On the DA's plans to propose Zuma's impeachment by Parliament she said: "They say they are calling for impeachment. Impeachment for what? As the ANC we have the right to look at the report before we can respond. We need to be given space to study the report. If there is any unhappiness it can be said after we have studied the report. "
The presidency said in a statement that "the president will study the findings and recommendations … in the context of the existing government interventions, and will communicate his response in due course".
Zwelinzima Vavi, the suspended general secretary of union federation Cosatu said if the ANC ignored the report it will be "a massive punch [to] the Constitution".
"The findings are damning," he said. "I don't remember how many times she used [the words] maladministration and improper conduct."