There is a famous polling story, commonly attributed to US President Lyndon B. Johnson. Attacking his rival in Texas, where the vote was close, Johnson used the sucker-punch tactic. As re-told by famous American journalist Hunter S Thompson,
The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumour campaign about his opponent's life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his own barnyard sows. "Christ, we can't get a way calling him a pig-fucker," the campaign manager protested. "Nobody's going to believe a thing like that."
I know, Johnson replied. But let's make the sonofabitch deny it.
South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa just fell for the same trick, albeit a more mundane: "he sleeps around (with humans)". Whether it was apartheid era "stratkom" style dirty trick at work or the usual dirty game of electioneering, Ramaphosa was forced onto the back foot.
Instead of ignoring or laughing at the claims, he went to court to prevent a Sunday paper from publishing. Then he engaged the issue and revealed a long-past affair of little interest to anyone. How did his advisers think this necessary in the sleazy moral climate created by Jacob Zuma's ANC?
The challenge for voters is that there are multiple election-related battles happening simultaneously within the ANC. There is a fight for the post-Zuma leadership, fairly obviously.
But there is also Zuma's own fight for safety from prosecution for alleged fraud, money laundering, corruption and racketeering once he steps down. His chosen candidate - Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma - isn't attractive to voters, according to polls. The one attribute she can play on is the mantra "we need a woman as president". That explains why Ramaphosa was attacked as a wife-beater, and when that didn't stick, as a sequential blesser (sugar daddy).
What the polls say
Leadership polls in the public domain - of all voters, not just ANC voters - suggest that this election is Ramaphosa's to lose. Among potential voters from all parties, he has overtaken the main opposition Democratic Alliance's Mmusi Maimane, to lead Dlamini-Zuma by a considerable margin. Dlamini-Zuma seems to be on an ineluctably downward spiral, matched only by her ex-husband. Her campaign urgently needs an injection. Becoming an MP and presumably thereafter a minister is part of the attempt to do just that, as will the rumoured appointment as Higher Education Minister and bestower of more or less free education for all, if it occurs.
But the problem is Ramaphosa. If Dlamini-Zuma needs a bounce, he needs his bubble burst. The ANC's mid-year policy conference, which begun with Zuma proxies' braggadocio, gave Ramaphosa a major bounce in the polls to the point where he is on a continued upward trend. The party's December elective conference is suddenly very close. A repeat performance would secure Ramaphosa's position; and leave current president Zuma looking very fragile indeed. Cue the smears.
If Dlamini-Zuma remains burdened by "that" name - and focus groups make it clear that the name is a curse, not a blessing - then attacking Ramaphosa for philandering and beating his wife is meant to take the gloss off his campaign and, crucially, influence women voters. Who wants a(nother) president who cheats on his wife? Who wants a president who apparently beat a former wife (despite her strenuous denials)? These are all intended to dent Ramaphosa's appeal to women voters. Above all, their aim is to reinforce the "we need a woman president" mantra - which is the central and only message of the Dlamini-Zuma campaign.
The 2019 national elections
All this is being fought out in the ANC, even if simultaneously in the full glare of a willing media. But the ANC nowadays is merely a player in the game - a big one, but most certainly not too big to fail.
There is still, in 2019, the real national election where South African citizens go to vote. This may be Zuma's major miscalculation. All evidence suggests that the national leadership have not learned the lesson of the 2016 municipal elections, which is core to all polling: do not take your voters for granted.
The ANC has failed to find its mythical reset G-spot, and its post-election post-mortem seems to have found nothing needed correcting barring the removal of some peskily ethical ministers. The #Guptaleaks - the thousands of leaked emails exposing the extent of the powerful Gupta family's capture of the state - and the cabinet re-shuffling plus simple cravenness of the entire ANC project, have worsened since 2016.
The ANC is still the "mothership" - the famous liberation party, settled deep in the heart and subconscious of many South Africans. But the same lovers of history are judging the present, and will vote accordingly. They did so in 2016. The warning seems to have passed unheeded.
The cloak and dagger cleverness being unleashed by all sides in the ANC struggle assumes one thing - that the party will win in 2019. Polls suggest that at the moment, the ANC remains the majority party. But that is voter sentiment right now - it does not measure voter intention in 2019. Moreover, winning and being a majority party are very different - just ask the ANC in Johannesburg post-2016, for example. A recent IPSOS poll found the following:
Nice guys don't win
Maimane's coy slip of his own poll - that the ANC was polling below 50% - may represent a 2016-2018 downward trend. If that happens attacks on Ramaphosa will come from the main opposition DA as well. This doesn't mean the DA will win. Maimane neatly said nothing of how his party was faring - but the messy business of bartering their way to provincial power via unshaky coalitions may be the future for an ANC that has truly toppled itself from the moral high ground.
Ramaphosa is clearly trying to chart a more moral and honest path than his predecessor. Where Zuma faced a rape trial and repeated evidence of infidelity, Ramaphosa initially fell for the sucker-punch (hence the failed interdict against The Sunday Independent) and then took the route of quiet dignity.
If Ramaphosa can lose that initial twitchiness, maintain the dignity, but toughen up for far worse muck that will be thrown at him, the country's most famous buffalo farmer may yet prevail.
David Everatt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.