LAST WEEK started with the story of how the City of Johannesburg had put in place measures to deal with the problem of giant rats in Alexandra. These rats are legendary, not only for their size, but also for the fact that the cats of Alexandra live in fear. A High Noon encounter between a cat and one of these giant rodents always ends in ignominy for the cat. Even the owls that have been recruited by the city are sick of them. One Alexandra resident opined to a television reporter that the owls are losing interest because of an over-supply of the delicacy.

As things turned out at the Gauteng conference of the African National Congress (ANC), the cats and owls of Alexandra are not the only ones whose minds are full of rodents. The deputy president of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, spent some time in his address to the Gauteng conference delegates talking about a rodent that is legendary in Lesotho. As you know, Ramaphosa has been asked to mediate the Lesotho imbroglio on behalf of the Southern African Development Community. He told the Gauteng ANC conference that some of the protagonists in the Lesotho political crisis had regaled him with stories of a rat that bites off chunks of its own flesh when it is stressed. This rat, says Ramaphosa, has been known to disembowel itself in the process.

By telling this story, Ramaphosa is warning the ANC not to devour itself because of tensions within the party over issues such as e-tolling and the underperformance of the ANC in the Gauteng election in May. Expanding on this theme, he said: "We have seen in recent years how regrettable tendencies have emerged that threaten to tear our movement asunder. We have seen vote-buying, gate-keeping, patronage, factionalism and even violence. Conference must discuss what can be done urgently to reverse these tendencies."

It seems to me the ANC in Gauteng is blaming the electoral erosion on collateral damage the ANC in Gauteng suffered as a result of the president’s image crisis, e-tolling, and perceptions by the middle class — those Zuma refers to as "clever blacks" — that the ANC has become a powerful metaphor for corruption.

He also reminded the conference of Amilcar Cabral, who said: "Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children."

As Ramaphosa was speaking, several things became clear to me. First, tensions between the Gauteng and national leadership of the ANC have probably worsened since the May elections. And the candour of the provincial leadership about the reasons behind the poor electoral showing of the ANC in Gauteng is an indirect attack on President Jacob Zuma and others in the national leadership.

It seems to me the ANC in Gauteng is blaming the electoral erosion on collateral damage the ANC in Gauteng suffered as a result of the president’s image crisis, e-tolling, and perceptions by the middle class — those Zuma refers to as "clever blacks" — that the ANC has become a powerful metaphor for corruption. To summarise, it seems the ANC in Gauteng is afraid that Zuma and injudicious national policies will one day cost ANC politicians in Gauteng their jobs.

Second, it was obvious when Ramaphosa spoke that the ANC in Gauteng is more of a home to the deputy president than it is to the president. It is, therefore, not surprising that, as I write, it is still not clear whether Zuma will make his cameo appearance at the Gauteng conference. At face value, Ramaphosa is the Gauteng candidate for the position of ANC president in 2017. Put another way, Ramaphosa may, in the lead-up to the 2017 conference, be right at the centre of what may become a battle between Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

But those who were delegates at the Gauteng conference must remember that the fervour that was ignited by inspiring speeches may be as ephemeral in effect as the speech of a motivational speaker. They must not forget that since Polokwane, the provincial leadership has tended to be more united against Zuma than the rank and file.

The critical question, however, is this — will proximity to Zuma be an advantage in the 2017 presidential race? Can Ramaphosa do without support from KwaZulu-Natal?

See more articles