A colleague joked recently that journalists covering the ANC’s national conference next week would go on to spend Christmas still reporting from the Pretoria High Court with a grumpy judge presiding over the umpteenth urgent application brought by one party faction against another.
An exaggeration of course, but one that stems from a reasonable expectation of the chaos that is likely to unfold in Johannesburg in 10 days’ time.
Depending on who you talk to, there is a growing belief in and outside the ANC that deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa is well positioned to win the party’s presidential race over main rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Ramaphosa enjoys support from, among others, the business and organised labour community – an interesting ideological plot if ever there was one.
He is also a palatable choice over Dlamini-Zuma for Joe Soap whose anger over the Marikana massacre is increasingly overshadowed by the anxiety of having another Zuma in the Union Buildings.
Yet, the only votes that will matter in this race are those of delegates to the conference.
There, Ramaphosa has support from all the Cape provinces, Gauteng and Limpopo, while Dlamini-Zuma is backed by the Free State, North West, Mpumalanga and her home base of KwaZulu-Natal.
At the final tally of the provinces on Monday, Ramaphosa led the race by a few hundred branch nominations.
But even with those numbers, Ramaphosa would know not to be excited just yet.
Branch nominations may be an indicator of the balance of forces, but they still remain just that. They do not automatically translate into votes by conference delegates.
Depending on their size, branches may send to the conference multiple delegates whose individual votes may differ from the collective position of their branch.
There is always a possibility, therefore, that Ramaphosa’s lead may be reduced when actual votes are cast in the conference.
This especially when considering the Mpumalanga province’s so-called unity votes which are likely to swing Dlamini-Zuma’s way, should David Mabuza not get his way.
Then throw into the mix the votes from the leagues, other structures and, of course, the prospect of brown envelopes floating between car boots at Nasrec and Ramaphosa may be staring into a melting pot of uncertainty.
The truth is that no one can predict what will happen at the conference.
If anything, it is the strength of the motives of supporters on both sides that will determine the victors.
There seems to be a popular narrative that those who support Ramaphosa do so in the interest of restoring the ANC’s credibility, its noble values and so on.
I do not deny that this may be the motivation for some.
Yet, it would be naïve to view this voting bloc only through this prism.
Ramaphosa’s campaign machinery is equally made up of those who have placed themselves strategically to benefit from a new era of power which they believe carries some legitimacy to the voter than that of his opponent.
How far they will go to ensure his win and – by extension – their own preservation is perhaps the question to ask. The Dlamini-Zuma bunch is far less complex. One, they have turned the ANC’s failure to reduce inequality and formed the basis of a simplistic message that promises far more than what it can realistically deliver.
Two, the ambitious crowd closest to her is here for one thing and one thing only, to loot.
Whether or not they are sanctioned by her, they will fight viciously to win this race.
Their campaign is not about her or the ANC, nor is it about radical economic transformation for that matter.
It’s about sustaining their access to your taxes.
Ramaphosa faces one of the toughest battles of his life.
Even if he wins this race, he is unlikely to usher in a change.
Not without the backing of the powerful national executive committee.
It is this structure that kept Jacob Zuma in power for so long.
If Ramaphosa wins, it will be this new structure that will ultimately determine the power of his presidency.
Nwabisa Makunga is The Herald deputy editor.