(Thulani Gqirana, News24)
Johannesburg - Election 2016 is not yet in the bag, but the ANC's leadership struggle for 2017 is already out in the open.
Of course, it started months ago, but there has been an unspoken agreement to keep it under wraps - at least until after the elections - so the party can tackle them with some semblance of unity.
This weekend, with barely 10 days to go before the polls, things got messy in the Western Cape when Marius Fransman claimed he had been reinstated as African National Congress provincial chair.
Both ANC president Jacob Zuma and elections organiser Nomvula Mokonyane agreed with him on this, but the party official who is tasked with his case, secretary general Gwede Mantashe, said Fransman was yet to go through the disciplinary process.
READ: Marius Fransman reinstated as ANC Western Cape leader
This is also the stance communicated by the party's national working committee two weeks ago, but Fransman claimed the party reinstated him to his position on Thursday.
Worse still for the party, he has now threatened court action and filed his papers at the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday morning - something which the ANC in the past has regarded as an "offence" worthy of immediate expulsion.
However, the courts have also been the place where ANC factional battles have played out in the past.
Fransman must be certain of the support of some big guns, otherwise he wouldn't be this bold.
'Premier league' might have sought Fransman support
The Western Cape isn't a province where the ANC has even pretended to campaign seriously, and a few weeks ago it even cancelled a manifesto launch rally where party deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was due to speak.
It was reported that this was because of divisions and fears that the stadium would not fill up.
The province could, however, be useful in the ANC's conference next year, even though it will send the second smallest delegation of all nine provinces.
According to lobbyists supporting candidates sympathetic to Zuma in the so-called "premier league", KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Mpumalanga and the Free State - will show majority support for Zuma. That, however, still leaves five other provinces either divided or undecided - not the ideal way to go into battle.
READ: Fransman is not back - Mantashe
Talk in the Western Cape is that the "premier league" tried to solicit the support of the ANC's mayoral candidate for Cape Town, Xolani Sotashe, but when it wasn't forthcoming, they struck a deal with Fransman.
Fransman has previously been sympathetic to Zuma, who in turn appointed him deputy minister of foreign affairs in 2009 when the province went to the Democratic Alliance.
He returned when the party needed rebuilding after the its poor performance in the province after the 2014 elections.
Those on Fransman's side say Mantashe has been leaking details of his case to the media, including the report of the integrity committee. Fransman himself claims not to have seen a copy.
They say the process has been unclear, that Fransman has merely stepped aside without being formally suspended, and that Fransman has not received enough information about his case.
"The Marius Fransman thing was for the old man to show he is ready to fight," a source close to Fransman said, adding that Mantashe's insistence that Fransman was still suspended was "below the belt".
As far as Fransman was concerned, it was all a honey trap, the integrity commission's report had cleared him, and there was no need for a disciplinary process - as Mantashe is now insisting.
To Fransman's critics, though, his insistence that he is still in the party's provincial leadership was nothing less than a "coup" ahead of the provincial conferences leading up to 2017.
"The fact of the matter is that the Western Cape might be the first of a series of disagreements," the critic said.
There have already been claims by Zuma's detractors that the recent conferences of the ANC Youth League, the Women's League, as well as the KwaZulu-Natal conference, have not been sound.
"Number One [Zuma] overruled the NEC [national executive committee] after it said KwaZulu-Natal wasn't ready for a conference, to say that it can go ahead," he said.
Zuma's detractors claim that the Fransman fiasco is just another example of Zuma overruling processes.
Another, lesser example of disagreements within the ANC is the matter surrounding the SABC and freedom of speech, which prompted Mantashe to emphasise to the media that his position on the issue is the party's official stance, and that everyone else (such as the Youth League, which is a known supporter of Zuma) is out of order.
The fact is, however, that although the party - at a 2013 national general council - resolved on an integrity commission, the process isn't clear or consistently applied.
Not all those who have been charged with crimes, have stepped aside as required by the rules, and not all those who might have brought the party into disrepute have been investigated by the integrity commission (think Zuma and Nkandla).
Apart from Fransman's court action, there is also the possibility of a criminal investigation against him. It's a matter that might drag on for a while and might represent one of the first public court battles ahead of what is set to be a very fiercely contested leadership conference in 2017.
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