It's no easy matter for the Mail & Guardian to secure an interview with a senior figure from the ANC ahead of the elections. There are busy schedules to deal with, weariness about Nkandla and a lot of suspicion to boot.
But then there's Malusi Gigaba. The public enterprises minister and the party's official head of campaigns is the closest thing the ANC has to a media darling, and he is ever ready and able. Which sums him up really.
He is the party's number three, its prince in waiting, and sometimes head boy. And he looks the part when he arrives promptly for our interview at 7am last Thursday. The black, gold and green threaded through his silk tie presumably run in his veins too.
Which means that Gigaba will talk to us, but that he will also be very careful. And it means that he will have to deliver the party line in response to the frequently asked questions about the ANC as if it is his own. Like the line that the persistent scandals that have dogged the party's weakest leader to date, President Jacob Zuma, prove that he is a victim. Or how the criticism of the ANC by many party veterans is disingenuous, given the many platforms they have to raise their concerns within the party. And the fact that the successes of the party in government over the past 20 years aren't just a good story, they're a bestseller.
But between party lines, Gigaba has nuanced views that deal with the real state of a grand old liberation movement that, 20 years after it won South Africa's first democratic election, is still evolving into a ruling political party.
"The ANC is going through a transition. [It is] trying to balance between being a national liberation movement that has a particular culture, and leading government, where things must happen differently," Gigaba offers, in the most frank moment of the interview.
Gone is the stridency that characterised his comments on disillusioned ANC veterans or the achievements of the party in government. He is halting now, and more thoughtful.
What are the pains of that growth? "How you handle deployment."
On this Gigaba is surprisingly forthright: the propensity within a liberation movement to reward the party faithful with top positions is at odds with a functioning government that must appoint the most qualified.
Dismal management is one of the many scourges that have undermined the ANC's good-news campaign in these elections. Stories of qualified audits, unspent budgets, underqualified individuals or fiscal dumping are too common in places where the party governs.
"For us, it's a transition period, a learning process," he says.
And whatever Gigaba will do for the party, he will not defend the spending on the cross the ANC must bear all the way to the polls and back: Nkandla. It's more than a public relations nightmare for the party, it's a dystopian fable come to life, featuring a king building himself a remote and removed palace at the expense of his starving subjects.
Or, as public protector Thuli Madonsela puts it, a "toxic concoction of a lack of leadership, a lack of control, and focused self-interest".
The heroine to the bad king's villainy, as the public narrative would have it, Madonsela faced down more than considerable political pressure from the party and found that Zuma had unduly benefited from "exorbitant" upgrades to his R246-million private home at Nkandla, and that he must pay back a reasonable portion of the costs.
That includes a swimming pool that the ruling party went through a tragi-comic phase of dubbing a "fire pool". Left with egg on their faces when the pictures emerged of the facility, they're more careful now, and, accordingly, Gigaba does not take any chances.
"The president is the first person to be unhappy with Nkandla," he says when asked whether the party is encountering much voter unhappiness on the matter. And his personal views? "We are all outraged about it."
But it is an abstract outrage, directed at the processes and people who should have known better because, as Gigaba would have it, Zuma was too busy to know or intervene.
"If you go to the president's home on weekends, you will find long queues of people to see him from before sunrise to right after sunset," Gigaba says. "When the architect has been briefed about what needs to be done, [Zuma] doesn't have time to sit with him on a daily basis asking: ‘Have you not taken advantage of the state project to benefit yourself?'"
The public protector's report would disagree, finding that Zuma was involved to a high degree in the details of the upgrades. Gigaba's careful response, however, appears to be empathetic, but removed from blame.
"The ANC has not tried to be defensive about this, and we shouldn't, because it wasn't an investigation of the ANC, and it wasn't an investigation of the president himself. It was an investigation of how necessary security upgrades at the residence of the president escalated to a figure that nobody in their right mind is prepared to defend."
It's a dual strategy. Yes, the spending is terrible – shocking really. But it's not a reflection on the ANC, merely processes gone wrong, and the voters aren't particularly concerned about it.
Low on the list
In fact, to hear other ANC leaders talk about it, every voter they've encountered has instead asked first about electricity, second about water. Maybe housing, too, somewhere in there.
Gigaba acknowledges that the issue of Nkandla does crop up among certain people. "[It] arises among the middle class and in media debates." In other words, not among the bulk of the ANC's support, its rural and working class base.
But most agree that the ANC is in secret accord on this score: if the party experiences a significant drop in the polls come May, it's the pimped-out rondavels south of Ulundi that will be getting the beady eye and the man who built them.
And on this point, Gigaba, while going to great lengths to give Zuma the benefit of the doubt, is clear: if pushed far enough, the party must take a person to task, no matter who they are. The spectre of ousted former ANC president Thabo Mbeki hangs in the air for the moment.
But for now, the ANC, thanks to whatever backroom machinations have painted it into this corner, is stuck with a deeply compromised leader heading into its trickiest election yet. But, with leaders like Gigaba softening the edges, it is determined to bolster, polish and push Zuma through the elections for the sake of the party.
And after that?
The king must make good on all this work, or make way for the princes in the wings.