With less than three months to go to the poll that decides who will become the next leader of South Africa’s ruling ANC party, the election campaign behind president Jacob Zuma’s preferred candidate appears to be faltering.
Last weekend, former government minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's faction in the ANC was dealt its second blow in a month when her main rival's ally was voted in as the party's new Eastern Cape provincial chairman.
Oscar Mabuyane's victory means that deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa now has a supporter in place to influence branch members in the ANC's second-biggest provincial support base in the run-up to December's national elective conference.
While this situation does not guarantee votes for him and his leadership team when Eastern Cape branch representatives cast their ballot, it does indicate that a majority of them are behind his campaign.
And come December, it is the branches’ representatives who elect the ANC’s top six leaders, so any influence that can be exerted over them is a bonus for candidates in the running.
However, Mabuyane’s victory was somewhat tainted by a brawl between his supporters and ANC members loyal to his main rival for the chairman position, Eastern Cape premier Phumulo Masualle, which laid bare the scale of the divisions in the former liberation movement.
The two groups engaged in chair-throwing and punch-ups on the floor of the East London International Convention Centre, and many people fear the scenes are a taste of things to come at the ANC’s national conference.
Furthermore, Masualle’s supporters, who back Dlamini-Zuma for party leader, have so far refused to accept defeat, and are now threatening to legally challenge the validity of the result, citing irregularities in the voting process.
The tensions on show in the Eastern Cape are a symptom of the wider factionalism that has gripped the ANC under Jacob Zuma’s rule, which has coincided with widespread corruption in government that he is accused of facilitating.
Many observers suspect Zuma has backed the presidential ambitions of Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife, so she can shield him from any corruption charges that may be levelled against him after his term as South African president ends in 2019.
Ramaphosa is also campaigning on the promise that he will clean up government, which has raised the stakes even higher for the beleaguered Zuma.
The development in London comes a few weeks after a high court declared null and void because of irregularities the outcome of the ANC's 2015 elective conference in Dlamini-Zuma's home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The leaders sidelined by this ruling on September 12th are also some of Zuma’s – and by extension Dlamini-Zuma’s – main supporters. So not surprisingly, last week they appealed it to the Supreme Court of Appeal in a bid to retain their positions of influence.
But there is a growing call from within the party for the national leadership to install a neutral task team to unify the ANC’s warring branches in KwaZulu-Natal and lead them to the all-important national conference.
This scenario would likely dilute Dlamini-Zuma’s influence over those branches and, by extension, the level of support she and her leadership team can expect to get when it is time to vote.
On top of this, some of the provinces Dlamini-Zuma had counted on for support earlier in her campaign – such as Mpumalanga, the Free State and the North West provinces – now seem divided, which has left her support bases there even more fractured.
But the growing discord in the ANC at provincial level caused by Dlamini-Zuma's and Ramaphosa's campaigning strategies has recently thrust a third "dark horse" candidate into the reckoning: the ANC's treasurer-general, Dr Zweli Mkhize.
City Press newspaper reported on Sunday that Mkhize, who is hyped by supporters as someone who can unify the ANC’s warring factions, was “mopping up the support” of other candidates’ wavering campaigns.
The well-liked GP is already backed by the ANC's influential Paul Mashatile and David Mabuza, who are the provincial chairmen of Gauteng and Mpumalanga respectively.