The presidential succession race is set to heat up in less than a month’s time as Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa takes his fight to his opponents in KwaZulu-Natal.

According to reports, high-level strategy meetings including Ramaphosa’s key senior supporters are said to have been planned for the days following the ANC’s birthday celebrations on January 8.

KwaZulu-Natal has now become the battleground for the race between Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who has enjoyed an early lead.

But City Press has learnt that some of KwaZulu-Natal’s ANC big guns are increasingly lining up behind Ramaphosa.

 The involvement of ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, national executive committee (NEC) member Bheki Cele, former KwaZulu-Natal premier Senzo Mchunu and former eThekwini mayor James Nxumalo has thrown the race for Zuma’s successor wide open.

Dlamini-Zuma, who seems to have been anointed by President Jacob Zuma, has long appeared to have the position in the bag in the absence of an outright challenger.

However, this week, Ramaphosa gave a strong indication that he was ready for the contest.

“I too dare not linger, for my long walk has not yet ended,” Ramaphosa said as he ended his speech in commemoration of Nelson Mandela – in which he also spoke frankly about the current problems with the ANC, including “patronage, corruption and the unrestrained scramble for positions and resources”.

After Ramaphosa’s statements, another of his backers, the SA Communist Party (SACP) and its leader, Blade Nzimande, yesterday stopped short of calling for Zuma to step down.

“If you side with a faction, it is time to go – you are not fit to lead, especially when you are president of the ANC,” Nzimande told Young Communist League delegates in Soweto.

With KwaZulu-Natal’s party membership strength diluted, smaller provinces will now fancy themselves as the new kingmakers in the succession race.

Widespread consensus was that Dlamini-Zuma’s appeal would be diminished if she did not enjoy solid support from Zuma’s back yard.

Also, there are now major fractures in the so-called Premier League – a Zuma-aligned lobby group – which, together with the ANC youth and women’s leagues, informally endorsed Dlamini-Zuma.

Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza, who is backed by his province for the deputy presidency, has described Zuma’s election in Polokwane in 2007 and in Mangaung in 2012 as “factional”, and warned that next year would be different.

The moves by Ramaphosa’s backers to make inroads in KwaZulu-Natal appears targeted at breaking the back of Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign. Even ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete has been working the province for support for her own bid for the presidency next year.

Zuma secured his second term thanks to a solid KwaZulu-Natal membership base, but the province subsequently split due to a rift between Mchunu and his successor – and Zuma ally – Sihle Zikalala.

Mchunu was proposed as the key man for Ramaphosa’s campaign because he would bring half of KwaZulu-Natal’s branches with him, said lobbyists.

This means Mchunu could negotiate a top-six post, and his allies are aiming for the secretary-general post under Ramaphosa.

Speaking anonymously, a KwaZulu-Natal ANC provincial leader said Mchunu’s supporters would support Ramaphosa.

“Do not be intimidated or fooled by those who are making a noise. The people of Nxumalo and Mchunu are clear. They make up 50% plus of branches, so it is a danger to discount them,” he said.

“It is a lie that KwaZulu-Natal is all for [Dlamini-Zuma]. It is a lie by Zikalala and the ANC Youth League. The issue will be clear soon. Comrades are waiting for [the ANC’s birthday] on January 8, then they will come through.”

The provincial leader said there had been meetings in KwaZulu-Natal attended by some ANC veterans to discuss Ramaphosa’s candidature.

“This … is about who can save the ANC and who is the more experienced leader; who understands the administration and who will bring back an ANC that is morally acceptable and not fraught with factions.”

Others expected to feature on Ramaphosa’s slate are Nzimande, ANC Gauteng chairperson Paul Mashatile and Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor.

Mashatile and Pandor’s chances would depend on support in their home provinces of Gauteng and the Northern Cape, respectively.

A Zuma supporter on the ANC’s NEC has said that Mkhize would struggle for support for a top post in the Ramaphosa camp because of his previous alliance with Dlamini-Zuma.

At least two provinces could be expected to back Ramaphosa: Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.

Meanwhile, a Gauteng ANC lobbyist said Ramaphosa “has agreed to stand. That is clear.”

He said that, unlike former president Kgalema Motlanthe, Ramaphosa would not wait until it was too late to campaign.

“That issue of principle is hogwash. He [Ramaphosa] has been told that it is a dirty game here. We do not pull that stunt.”

The discussion, he said, had taken place during a meeting on November 25 in Rivonia, which was attended by senior ANC, SACP and union leaders.

“They agreed that structures must make noise [and Mantashe] will turn a blind eye on this whole issue of processes. They were also doing a post-mortem on the motion of no confidence raised at last week’s ANC NEC.”

Concerns were also raised that Zuma may be preparing for a third term as ANC president, and “Cyril is well aware of this”, said the lobbyist.

“In the event that there is no consensus on who would replace Zuma, there would be a move to propose the extension of the term of office of ANC president. Ordinary supporters of Zuma are ready for combat.”

He said Ramaphosa was “gaining momentum on the basis that the Premier League is cracking”.

“Cyril is powerful. He is powerful to an extent that he can cause trouble for uBaba [Zuma]. Cyril becomes a strong contender on the basis that he has capital behind him.”

An anti-Zuma NEC member said Ramaphosa had “always been ready, but he was trying to be more considerate” while still working with Zuma.