There’s a silence in Cape Town around the parliamentary precinct these days, and the comrades are careful about who they are seen with. Makhosi Khoza is said to be the only ANC member of Parliament who still says yes to coffee dates with journalists.

Everyone is watching the other for some sign of betrayal, with only more than a couple of weeks to go before MPs decide whether President Jacob Zuma is still fit to hold office. It’s a big deal, not only because Zuma’s public popularity is at an ebb (think Nkandla and #Guptaleaks), but also because ANC caucus members are increasingly gatvol of putting their reputations on the line to defend his.

Some MPs have been outspoken, like Khoza, Pravin Gordhan and Derek Hanekom. Gordhan was axed after his working relationship with Zuma broke down, and Hanekom was dropped at the same time after he led a push within party structures to get Zuma out, but both remain MPs and members of the party’s powerful national executive committee.

Khoza has, however, faced by far the most public invective from the party because, party insiders say, she preferred to engage in public. Khoza spoke out against Zuma, in favour of a secret vote of no confidence, and ultimately also about the death threats against her. 

Unlike Hanekom and Gordhan, she couldn’t make her voice heard in the NEC’s inner sanctum, while speaking out in her home province, KwaZulu-Natal, would have gotten her a disciplinary sooner than the one the province called for on Thursday.

Like many South Africans, she’s also lost faith in the police. Afraid that she wasn’t properly protected after a death threat message sent to her phone , Khoza decided to shout for help.

In her latest Facebook post late on Thursday, Khoza said: “Our comrades have dropped like flies in Richmond, Umzimkhulu and other areas – the deaths amount to over 80 in total; yet before even one person has been brought to justice for the merciless killing of our comrades, it is me that they would want to exact their sinister justice on. Yet, why should I die silently?

“Why should my body be added to those who have died innocently and keep quiet about it? Many of my comrades died while remaining silent, many of my comrades will die silently still, (especially as December approaches) yet those who accuse me have done nothing about it. They have let our dead comrades down, now they come for those of us who are alive. They can’t kill us all. Let them label me but I for one have made my mind up, I will not go quietly into the night.”

The backdrop to this is the Moerane Commission of inquiry into political violence in KwaZulu-Natal, which this week heard testimony of dysfunctionality in the police.

Since 2014, 89 politically motivated murders have taken place – not a single arrest has been made.

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula’s accusations against Khoza – that she has not been available for meetings with the investigating officer, are unconvincing in this context. His use of the term “suicide bombers” to describe the likes of Khoza, who could see herself expelled from the ANC should she vote against Zuma, didn’t help.

Mbalula is a political player with his own political ambitions, and right now it’s a better future investment for him to be a good ANC cadre than a proper police minister – although the latter is useful leverage for the former.

Back to the vote of no confidence, the ANC faces a real dilemma. Besides the fact that it could be badly showed up by opposition parties should the vote succeed, there is a bigger problem – one that the likes of secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who is employed full-time to keep the party together, might be more preoccupied with than, say, Khoza, who is a mere employee by an institution of the country’s democracy.

What, for instance, would Zuma do if he’s voted out of power by MPs, including those in his own party who were once united enough to defend him in spite of a string of indiscretions and deceptions? He’s unlikely to quietly retire to Nkandla. Like in 2005, when he, as former deputy president, was fired by then president Thabo Mbeki, it could give him time and space to regroup and campaign.

Adversity has always invigorated Zuma, and with reduced promises of patronage at his disposal once out of office, he’s likely to play dirty. He’d have to appeal to supporters’ emotions and imphepho sales are likely to shoot through the roof (remember the wisps of fragrant smoke in front of the courthouse at his rape trial?).

The possibility of him running for a third term as ANC president has been whispered by supporters in the past. It’s an option open to him (and with two convenient deputies he could easily appoint to the country’s presidency).

Postponing the party’s elective conference beyond December to remain in power – a bit like the tactics of brother Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but on a party rather than on a national level – is another option.

Neither would be great for Zuma’s detractors in the party.

It would create two centres of power that could split the party more severely than, say, the polite splinters that could result should the SACP and trade union allies pack their bags after December.

In addition, any anti-Zuma victory in the vote of no confidence could position the opposition as heroes and as more attractive choices in the 2019 elections – and yes, campaigning for that has started already.

Even as the ANC morbidly feasted on itself at its policy conference earlier this month, there was an awareness that the clock is ticking as the country steams and stumbles towards its 25th year of democracy. The ANC might have little to celebrate by then