Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe "won't entertain" attempts by lobbyists for President Jacob Zuma to cut a deal to include him on the president's leadership slate for the ANC elective conference in December.
SIBONGAKONKE SHOBA, GEORGE MATLALA, SIBUSISO NGALWA and MANTOMBI MAKHUBELE | TIMES LIVE
The Sunday Times has established that, with less than five months to go to the conference, influential backers of Zuma's second-term bid want to persuade Motlanthe to stay on as ANC deputy president under Zuma - and agree not to contest the presidency of the party.
Such a deal - plus the retention of Gwede Mantashe as ANC secretary-general - would, Zuma lobbyists hoped, have avoided a divisive leadership battle similar to the one that split the party ahead of its last national congress in Polokwane five years ago.
But Motlanthe's spokesman, Thabo Masebe, was adamant this week that the deputy president would not entertain such talks.
"The deputy president will not entertain any talks with any lobby group about positions or leadership arrangements in the ANC. He respects the right of branches to nominate ANC leaders.
"It is members of the ANC who will decide; it will not be a group of people who will make deals. He has said he will not be part of any group," Masebe said.
Masebe's comments could be seen as a clear indication that Motlanthe will challenge Zuma if nominated by party branches to stand.
This would be a blow to Zuma backers hoping to avoid a contest for the three top posts during the conference.
That the party is headed for another bitter leadership battle was driven home this week when ANC veteran Winnie Madikizela-Mandela launched an unprecedented attack on Zuma, questioning his polygamous lifestyle and the axing of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.
In an interview scheduled to be broadcast by MTV Base in September - and which the Sunday Times has seen - Madikizela-Mandela speaks of the difficulty of convincing the youth to have one sexual partner when the president "can spring up another fiancée tomorrow".
Madikizela-Mandela gave the interview on Monday, just two days before spending former president Nelson Mandela's birthday in the company of Malema and suspended youth league leaders Sandiso Magaqa and Floyd Shivambu.
The youth league has become the public face of the campaign to have Zuma replaced by Motlanthe.
At the ANC's national policy conference last month, it became clear that the party was split between Zuma and Motlanthe supporters and that neither of the leaders was guaranteed victory.
It is partly because of this that some in Zuma's camp are seeking the "no contest" deal.
Among senior pro-Zuma ANC leaders said to be pushing for this deal are Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, Free State premier Ace Magashule, and members of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive committee.
A Gauteng-based ANC leader supportive of the proposed deal told the Sunday Times that such a compromise ought to be possible as Motlanthe had never said he wanted to take on Zuma.
"Kgalema has not come out and said he wants to be president. Our view is that Kgalema and JZ complement each other. Kgalema is an intellectual; the president is a people's person," he said.
A North West ANC leader aligned to Zuma said the party could not afford a showdown between Motlanthe and Zuma.
"You cannot remove Kgalema now, the organisation is going to be torn apart. The KZN people have always been saying that the deputy president should not be compromised because of factional battles. Whoever is campaigning in Kgalema's name is doing that on their own," the leader said.
An ANC national executive committee member opposed to Zuma's re-election said he was aware of talk about a deal ahead of Mangaung.
"There's a realisation from all candidates that no one is running [in a one-horse race]. No candidate has overwhelming support. So that's the discussion ... It's at its initial stages.
"[Zuma supporters] were being arrogant ... but they were marginalised in the policy conference ," said the NEC member.
Motlanthe's refusal to show his hand before the formal leadership nomination process opens in October appears to be frustrating his supporters and opponents alike.
A youth league regional leader aligned to the Zuma camp said: "There is a strong view that Kgalema is double-dipping and does not distance himself from the [anti-Zuma grouping]. We only know from people close to him that he has committed to continue to serve the ANC under the leadership of JZ. But comrades are saying Kgalema must come out clear ... he must not allow his name to be used by these boys."
He said if Motlanthe decided to stand against Zuma, the Zuma camp would push for businessman and former ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa to stand as Zuma's deputy.
"The view about Ramaphosa is very strong in that you have JZ managing the political side and then have a strong deputy in Ramaphosa, who is a globally recognised businessman, running government business.
"It would be good for our image. But we will accommodate Kgalema as long as he doesn't contest JZ," he said.
Motlanthe supporters in Gauteng are now punting NEC member Joel Netshitenzhe as their preferred candidate to take on Mantashe for the post of secretary-general, although they point out that he has not yet been approached to stand. U ntil now, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula has appeared to be the clear favourite for the post among Motlanthe's supporters .