Factional dynamics weigh heavily on which way ANC MPs will vote in legislature
President Jacob Zuma's detractors are backing down from their threat to vote with the opposition in parliament, fearing the prospect of an early general election or Zuma anointing an acolyte to succeed him.
ANC leaders and MPs this week told the Sunday Times they would toe the party line and vote against the scheduled motion of no confidence against the president because they believed Zuma's removal would result in his faction frustrating efforts to have a successor elected by parliament, which would necessitate a general election.
Zuma's supporters in the national executive committee, the ANC's highest decision-making structure between conferences, made it clear last week they would not support any candidate outside their camp if the president was booted out by parliament.
Even SACP-aligned ANC MPs who had threatened to abstain from voting in the motion of no confidence now say they will close ranks as they are convinced the Zuma-controlled NEC would not allow for a smooth transition.
An influential NEC member said last week's lekgotla reinforced the fact that Zuma's camp remained powerful and would frustrate any move to have the president replaced by a candidate from outside his inner circle.
"What will happen is that he will be removed ... then the NEC would have to decide who to put there [as president], he will be in charge of that," said a senior ANC member.
It was "almost certain" that, if Zuma was removed, the ANC would not find consensus on who would replace him.
Another NEC member said the Zuma camp made it clear during the lekgotla that the party would descend into deeper turmoil if some of its MPs made good on their threat to vote with the opposition.
"This is what they said in the NEC: 'If you are going to allow these others to vote the president out, then we are not going to support your president,'" said the NEC member.
"So we are not ready. It is a crisis. That is why we have to defend the president up until we are ready because now we are not ready.
"We are divided ... We will not agree about any candidate. So, we are not going to allow our public representatives to vote according to their conscience. In South Africa we have what we call party government - people [vote] ... for political parties and we deploy our ambassadors to the legislatures," he said.
Zuma's cabinet would have to resign if the motion succeeded in the National Assembly. National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete would become acting president for 30 days, within which parliament would have to elect a new president from among its members.
"If the president is voted out, there is concern that those who are close to him may not vote for the candidate that will be proposed, especially Cyril [Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa]. That would mean the ANC would not agree on a candidate while the speaker acts.
"That would be a massive problem because the failure to agree on a candidate, as soon as possible, would force an election to be called, meaning the ANC would have to contest elections in a divided state," said another NEC member.
ANC MPs are due to have a caucus meeting on Tuesday, at which they will get their final line of march from party bosses, who have repeatedly made it clear no MP would be allowed to exercise a conscience vote regardless of procedure.
We don’t know when she will announce it, but our lawyers will be at the High Court
Godrich Gardee, EFF secretary-general
The party has lined up staunch Zuma supporters on its speakers' list for the motion of no confidence debate on Tuesday, including Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa and deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude.
Opposition parties represented in parliament are determined to force Mbete to allow a secret ballot.
The EFF has drawn up legal papers and its lawyers are on standby to act the moment Mbete denies the request for a secret ballot.
Mbete has had the nation on tenterhooks after ending the week without announcing her decision on the voting procedure for Tuesday's sitting.
A senior ANC leader said the party expected Mbete to make an eleventh-hour announcement that the vote would not be done through a secret ballot.
"So it may not even happen because the opposition would take the matter to court," speculated the source.
"We don't know when she will announce her decision, but our lawyers will be camped out at the High Court in Cape Town and the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg," EFF secretary-general Godrich Gardee told the Sunday Times on Friday.
"And if she tries to slip in her announcement just before or during the debate, we will call her to order in the National Assembly and allow our lawyers to bring interdicts," warned Gardee.
The Constitutional Court has left the decision on whether the vote should be conducted by secret ballot in the hands of Mbete, whose decision has to pass the tests of rationality and effective accountability.
The Constitutional Court also made it clear that Mbete does have discretion in the matter, despite her having told opposition parties that parliament's rules would have to be changed to allow for a secret ballot.
Mbete is therefore under massive pressure regarding the decision she takes, the reasons she provides for it and whether the time she chooses to do so leaves enough time for effective accountability.
DA chief whip John Steenhuisen wrote to Mbete on Friday, claiming the delay to announce her decision "can only be construed as an attempt to ensure the motion is postponed. You have acted in bad faith and in violation of your constitutional obligations."
His letter could prepare the ground for another potentially embarrassing court battle for Mbete, who has lost several before.