Cyril Ramaphosa has pulled a classic rope-a-dope trick and now his nose is in front in the race for the presidency of the ANC.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain.

In 1974 Mohammed Ali challenged George Foreman to a fight for the world heavyweight boxing title. It took place in Zaire (now the DRC) and was called the Rumble in the Jungle.

Ali was the darling of the local crowd and their chant was “Ali bomaye!” (Ali finish him off!)

The strong and fit Foreman was the firm favourite to win and from round one it looked as if he was going to demolish Ali. Ali leaned against the ropes while Foreman hit his body with many heavy blows, round after round.

Then in the fifth round Ali suddenly sprang to life and started punching Foreman, by now tired of all the punching and dancing. The referee ended the fight after Foreman was knocked down in the ninth round.

Ali later called his tactic rope-a-dope: exhaust your opponent while giving him false hope that you’re going to be a pushover, then launch yourself into the battle with fresh legs.

During the last year or so, many people said that Ramaphosa had no backbone; that Jacob Zuma was dominating and out-foxing him. Cyril is a weakling, people inside and outside the ANC said, Zuma is going to have him for breakfast.

Ramaphosa indeed kept his nose clean and his tongue in check like a good and loyal cadre, on occasion even defending Zuma.

Until three weeks ago, Cyril’s Round Five.

He took the gloves off at a Cosatu memorial for Chris Hani and has since been criss-crossing the country, making it clear that he was the only one who could lead the ANC out of the desert. (Pardon the mixed metaphors.)

Ramaphosa is still very cautious and often speaks in code, but his audiences know exactly what he means.

He criticises vote buying before the December elective conference, he’s strong on state capture and corruption and often makes veiled references to the Gupta family, Zuma’s blessers.

His strongest argument eliciting most enthusiastic responses from his audiences is that the ANC had to be taken back to its former glory as the champion of the workers and the people, instead of caring only for the elite and the insiders.

His message is clear: make me the next president, or the ANC will lose the 2019 general election; a prospect that puts the fear of God into every cadre and deployee.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will probably look back next year and realise what a monumental tactical mistake it was to come back from the AU and totally align herself with the Zuma/Gupta faction when she launched her leadership campaign.

Her cheering commando is today deeply discredited: the ANC Women’s League under Bathabile Dlamini, the Youth League under Collen Maine, Gupta TV (ANN7), and the premiers of especially the Free State and Northwest, Ace Magashule and Supra Mahumapelo.

(Persistent rumour has it that the other member of the Premier League, Mpumalanga’s David Mabuza, could be weighing up his options.)

If Dlamini-Zuma had stayed at arm’s length and placed herself above the factionalism, she would have had a much better chance. Now she’s seen as simply “another Zuma”.

Ramaphosa’s awakening comes just in time – the ANC’s crucial policy conference scheduled for the end of June could have important consequences for the leadership battle.

Ramaphosa is now the candidate of choice of Cosatu, the SACP, the Gauteng and Northern Cape ANC leadership and he hopes to also be endorsed by the Western and Eastern Cape.

Meanwhile the Zuma camp is very upset that Ramaphosa’s has had the gall to go and campaign – quite successfully, it appears – in their own backyard, KwaZulu-Natal.

Ramaphosa still has one last albatross around his neck: the emails he as non-executive director of Lonmin sent just before the Marikana massacre. He hopes to finally put this to rest when he visits the widows of Marikana with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

But here’s a question: If Lindiwe Sisulu is also going to be a candidate for the ANC presidency, won’t she split the anti-Zuma vote? Or has she talked to Ramaphosa about a joint strategy?

Ramaphosa’s big advantage is that he’s never been accused of corruption, not since his early NUM and Cosatu days in the 1980s, while the Zuma-related scandals are now surfacing thick and fast, every week, causing a groundswell of revulsion among South Africans.

Ramaphosa is riding that wave, and his wingmen (and women) are all clean and respected, from present and former Cabinet ministers to members of Parliament and the national executive committee.

The saga of Brian Molefe’s bizarre return to Eskom and further evidence that Zuma’s son, Duduzane, could be at the centre of the Eskom shenanigans can only further assist Ramaphosa.

There are other revelations of scandals in the pipeline – one of them potentially dynamite – that will further taint Zuma, his sons, his friends and his allies.

Ramaphosa’s supporters are already chanting: Cyril, bomaye!

MAX DU PREEZ