Fikile Mbalula's bid for ANC secretary general looks stillborn. Will he now cross the floor to the Nkandla camp, as suggested by Sunday Independent? There's little to suggest so, but stranger things have happened.
If speaking at ANC Youth League events puts party members in the camp for leadership change, Fikile Mbalula is decidedly against the re-election of President Zuma's team. He addressed the Young Lions' legacy lecture last month, invoking Ruth First's advice to South African youth: "We are not content to be handed our life by older generations.
We have seen what heritage of mass unemployment, poverty and misery they have passed on us."
It was a manifesto for change and he challenged the party to vote out anyone who cannot deliver their mandate. All the motifs were there and it seemed clear he opposed to Zuma's second term.
This weekend the Sunday Independent questioned his commitment to leadership change, its cover announcing Mbalula 'backs' Zuma
An unnamed Luthuli House staffer confirmed the sports minister met the president at ANC headquarters and the paper alleges he was promised a spot as a National Executive Committee member after Mangaung, a position he currently holds.
The article came after a tough week for "Mr Razzmatazz". His desire to be elected secretary general of the ANC is well documented and has for years had the backing of the Youth League. Only the ANCYL and Limpopo Provincial Executive Committee, however, have named him as their chosen candidate.
The Independent said Zuma lobbyists are now convincing him to cut a deal. "He can't be part of a coalition that can't be defined politically," said Zizi Kodwa, who worked with Mbalula in the ANCYL and is a former Zuma spokesman. "If he contests Gwede (Mantashe) he'll lose.
He's got the future in the ANC. We can't afford to lose good comrades in the ANC, and especially good comrades like Mbaks."
The paper also claimed Sello Rasethaba has been lobbying Mbalula to switch to the Nkandla camp. Rasethaba has in the past been an ally of the sports minister and Julius Malema. He came to Mbalula's defence recently over criticism of his new foundation.
Mbalula's response to the article was scathing. He said it showed "a desperation of political thugs and their cohorts who have elected to subject me to political lynch.
"Those who possess uncontrollable ambitions to ascend to leadership by hook or crook, or position themselves as king-makers, will not hesitate to play dirty tricks," he said in the Sowetan. "I neither need spokespersons nor self-styled messiahs in the form of Zizi Kodwa or Sello Rasethaba to speak on my behalf."
The ANCYL jumped to its former leader's defence. It said the article, with the byline "Staff Reporters", was "false and misleading". "The African National Congress Youth League has noted and harshly condemns the dirty and malicious attempts by the Independent Group of newspapers to discredit and decampaign (sic) Comrade Fikile Mbalula," it said in a statement. "We can only conclude at this point that the newspaper has a vested interest in the Mangaung conference (and) is obviously prepared to stoop to all and any level to discredit Comrade Mbalula."
The criticism has called into question the role of the Independent Group in the Mangaung leadership contest. On 1 October, The Star claimed the Youth League was ready to abandon its choice of Mbalula as secretary general. The article Youth league drops Mbalulasaid the ANCYL didn't want to tackle both Zuma and Mantashe in the one election, and so might drop Mbalula if he was not backed by the provinces. He hasn't been supported by PECs; but the Youth League remains behind him.
City Press Editor Ferial Haffajee recently warned of ANC factions using the media to influence Mangaung. "Mangaung is an ethical minefield for journalists and we are trying to sweep it to be as clean as possible while still keeping you well informed," she said in a column on her own paper's position. "There may be reports that use anonymous sources, but we pledge to talk across factions, groups and provinces to present full and accurate pictures."
Sunday Independent included quotes from a range of sources, but except for Kodwa and Rasethaba they were unnamed because their positions didn't allow them to speak or they feared recrimination. The article says Kodwa "confirmed that Mbalula was amenable to their proposal" but none of the sources have knowledge of what he discussed with Zuma.
Mbalula has refused to comment on whether any meeting took place or his stance on Mangaung. "When the moment arises, I will not hesitate to speak for myself. Throughout my life I have never succumbed to political blackmail and will not live in fear of the unknown," he said on Monday.
It mirrors Motlanthe's wait-and-see policy that empowers branch members and reduces the risk of overplaying his hand.
It would be a huge turnaround for him to throw his weight behind the incumbent instead of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, but the Zuma camp must see him as vulnerable. Mbalula was dealt a blow by being left out of most nominated structures. Zuma's team can use it in the media to demoralise opposition and try to win Mbalula's support by letting him keep his cabinet position after Mangaung.
Right now, it looks like Mantashe will retain the position regardless of what happens on top, leaving Mr Razzmatazz needing to examine his options. Does he flip on those who have supported him all this way or continue to stick his neck out when Zuma may still run unopposed? If the opposition can bring him into the fold and somehow get him to support a top six that doesn't include him, it will go a long way to finding a ticket that can challenge the president.
During his ANCYL legacy lecture, Mbalula played all the cards associated with Julius Malema's more subtle criticism of Zuma. He supported a league that is "both radical and progressive in pursuit of their mission", called for "economic freedom for all", quoted Thabo Mbeki, and slammed the "second transition".
Mbalula may yet support the status quo to save his own skin. Stranger things have happened. There's also no doubt the president's team would welcome his influence. But the shadow sources and Zuma lobbyists quoted in Sunday Independent offer scant information to justify the headline, "Mbalula 'backs' Zuma".