The move to dispose of North West premier and Zuma loyalist Supra Mahumapelo casts light on the shifting balance of power within the ANC, edging ever more in favour of President Cyril Ramaphosa.
With the province effectively brought to a halt by violent protests calling for Mahumapelo's removal, the situation in North West highlights an internal instability within the governing party — the premier and his cohorts playing hardball with their national leaders, who, according to reports, largely agree that Mahumapelo should vacate office.
Then there is the question of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, another nightmare for Ramaphosa and his efforts to consolidate his power in the party. Internal disputes between ANC factions in the province, split between former president Jacob Zuma's partisans and Ramaphosa's "rebels", have forced the province into a stalemate, with an interim task team now trying to facilitate the handover of power.
With less than half a year in the presidential seats of Luthuli House and the Union Buildings, Ramaphosa is slowly cultivating his influence over various power brokers in both government and his party. First, Zuma had to go. Now for the purging of Msholozi's remaining power structures.
That started with a swift reshuffling of Cabinet. Then a clean-up of various institutions, like the South African Revenue Service. Now Ramaphosa has switched focus to the provinces.
The balance of power is closely contested throughout these structures, whether state or party, and Ramaphosa must maintain overwhelming influence over both to remain legitimate.
The ANC's top brass
The 20 members of the national working committee (NWC), the 80 of the national executive committee (NEC), and the party's top six together form the ANC's national leadership.
The NEC is the party's highest decision-making body, with the power to recall, remove and retain. The NWC is in charge of the day-to-day running of the party, while the top six comprise the executive leaders.
An early analysis of the NEC membership results after the national conference showed that 36 of the elected NEC officials were from the Dlamini-Zuma slate. Ramaphosa only secured 29. Seven members appeared on both slates ahead of the election, and eight appeared on neither. But insiders say Ramaphosa has since been able to win over a handful in the NEC and now enjoys a majority — but not enough to go uncontested on various issues.
In the NWC, at least 13 of the NEC members elected to the body backed Ramaphosa ahead of his election as ANC president. The top six were the turning point.
Ramaphosa's men, Paul Mashatile and Gwede Mantashe, secured the positions of ANC treasurer-general and national chairperson respectively. David Mabuza, who was (and perhaps still is) a wildcard and an enigma, came from the Dlamini-Zuma slate, but his Mpumalanga voters were seen as the last weight to tip the scales in the hotly contested presidential battle, which saw Ramaphosa emerge the victor.
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and his elected deputy, Jessie Duarte, were both strong Dlamini-Zuma backers. Mabuza has promised to rally behind Ramaphosa, and is purposefully being seen to do so; Magashule and Duarte, not so much.
Politics expert Susan Booysen said factional divides in the ANC are still "massive" but will probably not intensify.
"We know that Ramaphosa has a slight edge, and that his influence in the party's structures has been growing. We can judge this by the decisions taken by the NEC and the NWC since he became president of the party. The balance is tipping in his favour — but not in earthquake-like proportions. The relations still remain fragile," Booysen said.
"Ramaphosa will have to tread with great care, because the Zuma faction still has the power of threat. Ramaphosa will be sure to consolidate the basis for all his decisions with the NEC and NWC, as he cannot be accused of furthering splits in the party."
Support from the ANC members in each province is vital for party members' political longevity. The sizes of officials' constituencies are used as bargaining chips in climbing the party's ranks. The size of ANC membership in each province determines the size of the delegation that votes at various congresses, like the national conference, and those who lead the province have significant influence on how that delegation will vote.
That is where a provincial executive committee [PEC], its chairperson, and the premier become vital.
And it is for KZN, the largest voting contingency in the ANC, that Ramaphosa will soon have to fight.
Political analyst Protas Madlala said members of the disbanded PEC in the province, largely aligned to Zuma, have considerably more support in the ANC than Ramaphosa's backers.
"The disbanded KZN PEC, led by Sihle Zikalala, is fast entrenching its power in the province ahead of the provincial conference. Senzo Mchunu, who leads the Ramaphosa faction, is unhappy that the party is not united so close to the 2019 national elections. He wants to postpone the provincial conference until after the elections, so that both factions can pursue a united campaign. But [Zikalala's faction] is pushing for the conference to happen as soon as the end of May, because they know they have enough support," Madlala said.
Ramaphosa's first move as state president was to reshuffle the Cabinet. Although he made some bold changes, he kept some dead wood in the interests of unity.
Full command of the ANC will help little come the 2019 national elections, should Ramaphosa not be seen to be cleaning up his administration in the eyes of the voters. He has focused much of his attention on this, chopping and changing the boards of various state-owned enterprises like Eskom, and exiling most ministers accused of corruption or general underhandedness.
Ramaphosa's Cabinet saw the return of Pravin Gordhan, now Minister of Public Enterprises, and Nhanhla Nene as finance boss. He got rid of the likes of David Mahlobo, Des van Rooyen and Mosebenzi Zwane — but opted to shift other Zuma loyalists like Bathabile Dlamini and Malusi Gigaba to "less important" ministries.
But politics expert Ralph Mathekga believes Ramaphosa may be too focused on the state.
"One thing very clear is that Ramaphosa's presidency is very focused on governance, and he doesn't have the time therefore to be on the ground. He is so absorbed in the state that it leaves space for a political shift on the ground. And the shift will be from people who have the time to mobilise. Ramaphosa needs to stabilise the ANC very quickly," Mathekga said.
"The balance of power [at] ground level is very precarious. The notion that Ramaphosa is dominated by corporate entities is still alive in the ANC. KZN is fighting battles for Zuma, while Mahumapelo is a master tactician on the ground. If Ramaphosa is not careful, he may face a special congress [that votes] him out before his tenure is over."