Amid fears that the ANC’s electoral conference could collapse because of infighting, the race to succeed President Jacob Zuma got off to a false – and dirty – start this weekend.Campaigning for the party’s 54th national conference was supposed to have kicked off at the beginning of September with branch nominations, but the ANC has made it clear that the process will only start after the national executive committee’s (NEC’s) next meeting, scheduled for the end of the month. But this did not stop the camps from firing their first salvos in what is set to be a dirty election season. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – one of two perceived presidential frontrunners out of a field of eight – was forced to furiously defend himself over allegations of extramarital affairs. SEXUAL SMEARSThe allegations against Ramaphosa were circulated through leaked email questions that Sunday Independent editor Steve Motale had sent to the deputy president and an alleged lover. They contain lurid details of correspondence and associations with several women. Ramaphosa’s camp believe the story was planted and that the emails have been leaked and circulated to coincide with what many believe would be the beginning of the nominations. Ramaphosa hit back hard, warning that an escalated “dirty war” was being waged “against those who are working to restore the values, principles and integrity of the ANC and society”.In an extraordinary charge by the ANC’s second in command, he said that “the disinformation” campaign against him and those who had spoken out against state capture were akin to “stratkom techniques of the apartheid era”, which involved the security apparatus conducting a sophisticated propaganda campaign against the National Party government’s opponents. The operation, he said, was meant to protect those who had carried out state capture and benefited from “the looting of public resources”.Ramaphosa charged that the “operation appears to have access to resources within intelligence circles with the capability to intercept communications and hack private emails”.“We now need to confront the likelihood that state agencies and resources are being abused to promote factional political agendas. We also need to confront the reality that those behind these agendas will go to any length to protect themselves and their interests.“We need to ask who these people are, and on whose behalf they act,” said Ramaphosa. He said women who were named as his lovers were part of a group of young men and women that he and his wife were financially supporting.Ramaphosa warned his enemies within the ANC that he was preparing to further challenge and expose them.Speaking at the funeral of Police Minister Fikile Mbalula’s mother yesterday, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe cautioned against smears and urged party members not to allow “askari tendencies” to implode the organisation. COULD THE CONFERENCE COLLAPSE?The attack on Ramaphosa came as fears arose among the ANC’s ranks that the levels of animosity could spark secret plots to sabotage the national conference either ahead of, or at the beginning of, its sitting. This could be done via sabotaging and corrupting the branch nomination process or filibustering the pre-conference credentials acceptance session. This is already common practice at branch, regional and provincial conferences. ANC stalwart Mavuso Msimang warned this week that this was possible. “My fear – and it is shared by many people – is, I think there is a certain group who, if they lose, would find a way of sabotaging the conference. “I do not think anybody should try to jeopardise the conference because they are losing ... I am also not sure what serious value that conference is going to produce.”It is believed that Mantashe’s office has been alerted to this. Oscar Mabuyane, the ANC’s Eastern Cape secretary, said most of the disputes in the province had so far appeared to be “malicious” – but, he added, the ANC had to appreciate the fact that disputes offered an opportunity for political education.RAMAPHOSA CONSOLIDATES LIST Last weekend, Ramaphosa’s campaign team met to consolidate the list of top six candidates who could serve under him, and he is expected to have one-on-one meetings with those earmarked.The list, which City Press has verified, features Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu – herself one of the eight hopefuls – as Ramaphosa’s number two. With his chief competitor campaigning on a woman president ticket, Ramaphosa is pressed to demonstrate his confidence in women. But Sisulu is still determined to fight for the top post, City Press heard. “It looks as if Sisulu has decided to go the whole hog,” said an insider in the Ramaphosa camp. “It is clear now where she stands, and we are accepting that she is no longer playing ball.”The insider added that the Ramaphosa side had grown frustrated with Sisulu’s insistence on running.A Dlamini-Zuma ally said their camp was also irritated because “Sisulu has a view that everyone else contesting to her is junior, politically speaking”. Others on the provisional Ramaphosa list are Mantashe (chairperson), Gauteng ANC chair Paul Mashatile (treasurer-general), former KwaZulu-Natal premier Senzo Mchunu (secretary-general) and Febe Potgieter-Gqubule as his deputy. Potgieter-Gqubule has a strong association with Dlamini-Zuma, having worked with her at the African Union.A Limpopo lobbyist for Ramaphosa said Mantashe’s recent comment that a woman should become deputy president was intended to push backers of Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza and ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize to accept that their principals could not bid for the post.The source said Mabuza might be shifted to treasurer-general in the event that a second deputy secretary-general post could be created and made available for Mashatile. Others said a second ANC deputy president post was still a possibility for Mabuza.But those supporting Dlamini-Zuma to take over as president are also looking to pounce on Mabuza should the Ramaphosa camp leave him out in the cold.BID FOR A THIRD WAY – AGAINMabuza and Mashatile have been linked with a lobby dubbed “third way” – described as the best opportunity for them to ensure that they clinch a post in the top six.A third way was tried unsuccessfully in 2007 by those seeking to avoid a bruising fight between the Zuma and Thabo Mbeki camps. But Tokyo Sexwale, the third way candidate, fell flat and gave his support to Zuma.The leaders have now moved to stop their provinces from holding so-called cadres’ forums, which have been used as campaign platforms, by speaking directly to branches. Provincial leadership would then have a final word on nomination.Placing the final word in the hands of provinces would suit Mabuza and Mashatile, “and that is why Mabuza pleaded with Limpopo during their bilateral meeting that rallies should be stopped”, said a source.But Limpopo, as well as the Northern Cape, has rejected the proposal.An insider said the proposal that provincial leaders have the final word on the leadership would also not work as branches now send their nominations directly to Luthuli House.City Press heard that in Gauteng, regional leaders in the West Rand, Johannesburg and Tshwane told Mashatile that talk of the third way was out of the question, and that he had to settle for a top six position under Ramaphosa’s slate.Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha told the bilateral meeting with Gauteng that consensus should be reached, “but its foundation should be tradition” – which means that the deputy president should succeed.A bilateral meeting between the Ramphosa-backing Northern Cape and the North West, led by Dlamini-Zuma ally Supra Mahumapelo, also ended in a stalemate.THE ZUMA ALBATROSSAlthough they are bullish about victory in December, Dlamini-Zuma’s backers are worried that her association with the president could jeopardise her chances of becoming head of state in 2019.“I know that when Mama wins at conference it means that kuzonyiwa [it will be tough] in 2019,” said her lobbyist.“The Zuma surname is weighing her down, but we are prepared. We will just have to have a clear story to tell society. She has the credentials and she has no corruption linked to her personally.”A pro-Zuma NEC member said they would lobby Mantashe to become chairperson under the Dlamini-Zuma slate.Another lobbyist said: “We have tried to bring Mantashe on board, but he always asks what will become of Ramaphosa.”Among those being considered for Dlamini-Zuma’s top six are Free State chairperson Ace Magashule, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa and current deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte.Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign managers believe Ramaphosa’s people are “mobilising” outside of the ANC. “Cyril is mobilising popular support outside the ANC structures ... Dlamini-Zuma is running an internal campaign. There are branches and structures being visited,” a lobbyist said.