Sixteen months ago, the top six officials of the ANC held hands and raised them high in a show of unity. They had just been elected at a conference in Mangaung to lead the ruling party for a five-year term and one of their major tasks was to fight the country's fifth democratic election successfully.
It was a sweet victory for those who campaigned for ANC president Jacob Zuma's re-election for the second term, protecting Number One against those who wanted him replaced with his then deputy Kgalema Motlanthe. But this victory was in effect securing individuals' opportunity of moving further up the ranks. The unity lasts for as long as the party president is still an ideal candidate to rally around.
Today it is an open secret that ANC top six officials look at each other with suspicion, as individuals across ANC structures start thinking about positions of power ahead of the next elective congress in 2017. The most spoken about tension is between Zuma and secretary general Gwede Mantashe – probably because there are so many examples of their differences playing out in the open.
Several incidents have over the recent past pointed to tensions between Zuma and Mantashe. When Zuma's friends, the wealthy Gupta family, landed an aircraft carrying guests to their daughter's wedding at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, it was Mantashe who issued the harshest statement from an ANC member. He called on all who were involved in granting permission to the Guptas to be "brought to book". He expressed the ANC's concern for "the safety and sovereignty of South Africa" where the country's "ports of entry and national key points are penetrated with impunity". But Zuma used a national executive committee (NEC) meeting three weeks later to dilute Mantashe's strong statement, calling Waterkloof Air Force Base a strategic entry point and insisting it was not a national key point.
In another incident said to have angered Mantashe, Zuma assigned his deputy Cyril Ramaphosa and deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte to a fact-finding mission in Tlokwe local municipality last year, when ANC councillors were at odds with the provincial leadership. Mantashe was not involved in the plans, according to two ANC sources. "The SG [secretary general ?Mantashe] should have been the one sending those people to Tlokwe, it's his key performance area," said an NEC member, who added that Zuma sent Ramaphosa and Duarte because he did not trust that Mantashe was objective on the matter. The secretary general was at the time believed to be sympathising with the North West provincial executive committee.
One of the main sources of unhappiness from Zuma loyalists in the ANC NEC is that Mantashe is trying to "outsmart Zuma".
"He would make reckless statements like we don't have a head office called Nkandla. Then later promise journalists to take them on a tour of the same Nkandla without talking to the president. Why don't you [Mantashe] take them to Luthuli House where you are the CEO [chief executive]?," said a pro-Zuma NEC member.
"When a voter in the Free State said I don't like that man on the T-shirt [Zuma], Gwede also made a remark that if you don't like this man don't vote for him, vote for the ANC. He was supposed to say this man is the one who led the ANC government for the past five years when we achieved this and that."
In the ANC, Mantashe is seen as working towards playing a role in the country's executive. He is serving a second term as secretary general, the engine of the organisation, and only two higher positions remain for him if he stays favoured by party branches and lobbying factions – deputy president and president. These two positions lead to the president and deputy president seats of the country.
Tensions related to power naturally affect the ANC's top six officials, who are often forced to choose sides and align themselves with one leader or the other. For now, Zuma is said to enjoy support from the majority of the top officials, with Ramaphosa, national chairperson Baleka Mbete and Duarte sympathising with him. Mantashe and treasurer general Zweli Mkhize are said to be in another corner.
Mantashe told the Mail & Guardian that claims he was unhappy with Zuma sending Ramaphosa and Duarte to Tlokwe and that he promised journalists a tour of Nkandla without Zuma's permission were factually wrong.
This was an attempt to "drive a wedge between me and president Zuma. I am not expecting it to stop", he said.
He insisted that he does not fear raising critical issues with Zuma. "If there are issues [in the ANC], we raise them. When people attack us on facts, I don't spend sleepless nights. But when they do so without facts, it's a miscarriage of justice.
"I am the secretary general of the ANC. I communicate on behalf of the party. I do that competently. Nothing will deter me from speaking on ANC issues."
Though Ramaphosa has lost the support of some in the NEC who claim he seeks approval from Zuma on everything instead of taking an independent stance, the deputy president seems to be paving his road to the presidency by showing Zuma he is with him all the way. He would do better as an anointed successor as opposed to trying to build support on the ground from scratch. This former trade unionist lost significant support in both the ANC and Cosatu after he abandoned active politics in favour of the business sector. Those who would like him to succeed Zuma say he is simply being strategic.
"Cyril is trying to make sure that he closes the gap between him and Zuma so they can work together," said a pro-Zuma NEC member. "The approach that Cyril is using, and that will work for him, is that of saying 'no matter how smart you are, don't try to outsmart the master'."
Ramaphosa owes his ascension to power to Zuma and his loyalists; he became deputy president by default after Motlanthe rejected the offer by Zuma's supporters to remain the second-in-command.
Some of Zuma's loyalists have in the past raised concern that Ramaphosa could be overly ambitious and disrupt any wishes for Zuma to anoint his preferred successor before he leaves office, should that preferred successor not be him.
Already the strongest KwaZulu-Natal lobby is talking about bringing back African Union commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to run for the presidency. While Dlamini-Zuma is a respected leader in her own right, there is a group that is concerned she is another Zuma. She is divorced from Zuma, but remains a part of his family. Also, abandoning the AU seat before the end of her term to start campaigning on time for the ANC would embarrass South Africa, which fought a bitter battle to successfully unseat Francophone Africa from the AU commission seat.
Duarte, meanwhile, served as Zuma's chief operating officer in the presidency for a few months before resigning to become head of monitoring at Luthuli House. A former anti-apartheid activist in the United Democratic Front (UDF), she is still a close ally of the president. During Mbeki's government, Duarte was appointed ambassador to Mozambique, removing her from local politics for years. Her election as one of the top six officials is said to have been an attempt to "appease the minority" in the ANC, though an NEC member said there was "a lot of sentimentalism in the ANC" that made her UDF credentials important.
Mbete, a former state deputy president under Motlanthe, became the first woman to be elected national chairperson of the party in 2007, and is respected for the role she played as speaker of Parliament and advocating for women in the leadership. She brings the women's support to any slate she is on. Mbete has been punted as a possible deputy president for the party in 2017, preparing her to return to the country's deputy president position.
ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize is said to harbour presidential ambitions. As early as last year, ANC insiders talked of informal discussions to lobby around his name or that of Mantashe for deputy president in 2017. Mkhize's election to the ANC's top six has been linked to efforts by a Zuma-aligned KwaZulu-Natal lobby to remove him from provincial politics, where he was chairperson and premier.
It is often top six officials who are expected to hold factions together when ambitious ANC leaders start jostling for power, but these officials are also prone to such factions because they were elected by factions after all. And the next top six officials are at some point bound to have the same problems. – Additional reporting by Matuma Letsoalo