A war of words was always expected in the final weeks before the country's fifth general election, where the ANC's moral authority is in question more than ever. But it's not opposition parties taking aim at the ruling party that is making headlines as the ANC moves to secure its voting base just three weeks ahead of the elections.
Instead, the battle has moved into the very centre of the party: the ANC's own former leaders have become increasingly critical of their political home and it's getting difficult for the party to look the other way.
All those niggling criticisms from the sidelines – and from those within the party – have coalesced into a Vote No! campaign aimed squarely at the ANC, headed up by former intelligence head Ronnie Kasrils.
Kasrils is joined by former deputy health minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and a number of ANC veterans who will be "backing a campaign calling on voters to come out and vote by either spoiling their ballots or to voting tactically in protest against corruption and current government policies".
But not everyone agrees with the campaign, which launches on Tuesday.
Former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa said the campaign made a weak case, while former president Thabo Mbeki faithful Essop Pahad – also a former minister in the presidency for nine years – wrote a respectful open letter to his "dear comrade Kasrils" saying: "The ANC, notwithstanding serious problems within it, remains the most effective instrument to bring about fundamental change and transformation in our country in favour of the poor and workers, the continent and international relations."
But the campaign itself is just an extreme version of the steady flow of criticism that has emerged from party elders in the wake of the Nkandla scandal, which seems to have left most ANC faithfuls with a bad taste in their mouths.
Public protector Thuli Madonsela ruled that security upgrades involving more than R200-million security upgrades to President Jacob Zuma's private residence in Nkandla went beyond what was necessary, flouted numerous regulations and has ordered Zuma to pay the state back for non-security related items like an elaborate swimming pool, an amphitheatre, a cattle kraal and a chicken run.
The upgrades have proven to be the tipping point for many ANC leaders fed up with their current leader's poor self-control and propensity for scandal.
A current member of the party's national executive committee Pallo Jordan, while taking issue with Kasrils's campaign, has been vocal about the upgrades in a series of Business Day columns, earning the ire of his ANC colleagues.
Jordan said Zuma's administration was "littered with scandal" and that Zuma could not "evade moral responsibility for what happened in Nkandla". Former home affairs director general and Umkhonto we Sizwe veteran Mavuso Msimang was even more scathing in his own Business Day column, saying party leaders were turning a blind eye to the scandal and recalling how he turned down security upgrades because of cost concerns and had to pay back for the security installations he enjoys today, long after he vacated office.
Manuel goes first
Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel became the first sitting Cabinet minister to speak out emphatically on Nkandla, saying in a radio interview on Wednesday "[state funds] should not pay for a swimming pool at any individual's house regardless of who they are".
Mbeki also weighed in, saying it was "worrying" and a poor reflection on the quality of the leadership the country needed to face future challenges.
That leaders criticising Zuma were all aligned with his predecessor Mbeki, is not insignificant. For many, the worst fears of the party's conference in Polokwane in 2007 where Mbeki was ousted by Zuma have proven to be true.
But all this criticism has put the ruling party in a difficult position. The party has either ignored it or lashed out, both of which have alienated the leaders and the party's supporters who have been startled at how those seeking to change the party for good have been treated.
Manuel's comments sparked an argument with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, who called him a "free agent". But Manuel is on his way out of active politics and laughed off the criticism, perhaps further incensing an apoplectic Mantashe and his colleague Jackson Mthembu, who took issue with Manuel blithely calling Mantashe a mere "ANC functionary".
A disservice to the ANC
Indeed, Mantashe's fury at former leaders has been the most cutting. His main tactic seems to be discrediting former leaders who speak out against the ANC, implying that they were poor leaders in their time.
He likened Manuel to Kasrils and another vocal former minister, Jay Naidoo when he made the free agent remark.
"Jay Naidoo and Ronnie Kasrils are also free agents who have a lot to say today, although they did not do much during their time in government," he reportedly said on the sidelines of an election campaign visit in Tumahole, Parys in the Free State earlier this month. On Monday, he made a similar comment about Kasrils during a radio interview, saying if the party was in a poor state it was thanks to his leadership as head of intelligence during his time.
The tactic is a slightly more mature version of the ANC Youth League's own response. The unelected interim leadership of the league threatened to reveal Kasril's "proper characterisation" should he continue to be "troublesome", advised he get psychological help and plan to lay a formal complaint against the stalwart within the ANC.
This set of responses to their critics by the ANC is baffling and will lead to them shooting themselves in the foot. While every leader who criticises the party has their own share of blame for the rot that has set it, by condemning their past performances as unsatisfactory, the party must explain how it allowed such leaders to continue in their ranks in the first place.
Perhaps sensing this contradiction, other ANC leaders have chosen to keep mum on the criticisms.
"We don't want to be distracted by other stories," said ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu at an ANC breakfast briefing with editors on Monday morning, when asked about Kasril's campaign. "We don't think we should make unnecessary headlines on some other campaigns."
But his colleague, Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, seemed determine to respond to the question at the briefing, until Mthembu's response silenced her. She still made her case to the New Age afterwards.
Both versions of response: silence or attack, have done the party a disservice. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian on Thursday, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba acknowledged that some of the language the party used towards its former leaders was not ideal.
"But they have had every opportunity and platform to raise their concerns within the party," he said. But he agreed that the spending on Nkandla was an outrage for everyone within the party – including Zuma himself – and working together with veterans to fix the problem would be a better plan than the public verbal fights that have become the norm.
'An act of love for the ANC'
It's a good plan, but a largely ignored one as tempers fray and words fly ahead of the elections.
"It is an act of love for the ANC," said Kasrils of his campaign in an interview ahead of the launch. "It's like when a father or brother goes wrong and you have to be strong to stop them."
The ANC, already feeling sensitive going into an election with its most compromised presidential candidate to date, is likely to disagree.