While three factions vying for the ANC chairperson position in the Free State were busy with last-minute lobbying and horse-trading ahead of the provincial conference scheduled for Friday, the electoral commission appointed to run the conference was opening the ballot boxes and counting the branch nomination list.
Lobby groups for Thabo Manyoni, Sisi Ntombela and Vusi Tshabalala's slates allegedly met in Bloemfontein in a bid to reach common ground and come up with one slate, which would challenge for the position against the provincial convenor, Mxolisi Dukwana, late on Wednesday afternoon.
The provisional top five list leaked to City Press after the opening of the ballot boxes indicated that Dukwana was miles ahead of the rest in branch nominations.
The interim provincial committee (IPC), led by Dukwana, announced that the provincial conference would take place from January 20.
This was after the ANC national executive committee (NEC), which was elected at the national conference in Nasrec last month, gave the Free State IPC the green light to convene the conference after it was postponed several times last year.
According to the provisional list, which excluded two influential regions, Dukwana was leading the pack and had qualified to be in the ballot papers after being nominated by 59 branches for the position of provincial chairperson.
His nearest rival and premier of the Free State, Ntombela, got 37 branch nominations.
Manyoni, who was seen as the person who could unify the province after political fighting, which had characterised the branch meetings, was sitting with 15 nominations, while Tshabalala only garnered six branch nominations.
According to the document, 242 branches qualified to participate in the conference after successfully holding biennial branch general meetings.
All the candidates require 20% or 48 branch nominations to qualify to be on the ballot paper for any position in the top five structure.
In the position of the provincial secretary, IPC coordinator Paseka Nompondo was way ahead with 67 branch nominations while Polediso Motsoeneng got 49 branch nominations.
Dibolelo Mahlatsi took an early lead with 49 branch nominations in the position of deputy provincial secretary with her nearest challenger, Kenalemang Mohale, getting 30 branch nominations.
Mathabo Leeto appeared as the favourite for the position of provincial treasurer with 48 branch nominations and her challenger, Lindiwe Makhalema, got 27 branch nominations.
City Press understands that Mangaung and Fezile Dabi were the only remaining regions where the electoral committee was yet to open their ballot boxes. The two influential regions indicated in the past that they supported Manyoni to be the provincial chairperson.
However, sources close to the situation said the current list was deceiving because not all the regions and branch ballots boxes were opened at the time the list was released.
A source said they were irked by the fact that the biggest region in the Free State, Thabo Mofutsanyana District Municipality, had endorsed Vusi Tshabalala but the numbers did not correspond with their earlier endorsement.
The Free State has five regions with the biggest being Thabo Mofutsanyana, followed by Lejweleputswa district, Mangaung and Fezile Dabi with Xhariep district being the smallest.
Another lobby group member said they were close to agreeing with Thabo Mofutsanyana to vote with them for Manyoni's slate.
"People, especially in Mangaung, do not like Dukwana because they believe that he is lazy and also turned his back on them when they needed him. Before he became the IPC convenor, he would take calls and attend to comrades but now, he has vanished," said the source.
Dukwana lost popularity when he was accused of failing the province as the MEC for cooperative governance after being appointed to the position in 2021.
The IPC convenor, who was returning to active politics after being in the wilderness following his failed attempt to unseat Magashule in 2012, was also appointed the IPC convenor by the NEC in the same year.
He was appointed to the position after the Supreme Court of Appeal declared the Free State ANC's 2018 conference that elected former provincial chairperson Magashule's ally, Sam Mashinini, as the provincial chairperson unlawful.
While Ntombela continued to lead governance in the province, many branches accused her of failing to lead the party, which made them believe that elevating her to the top post would be worse.
Before she accepted the nominations, Ntombela had endorsed Manyoni as the chairperson on social media, a decision she would regret as she was accused of trying to soften him to have her in his slate.
Lobby groups close to him also describe him as a strong administrator who can take the province forward.
According to sources, Tshabalala lost popularity before his campaign could start due to his relationship with former ANC secretary-general Magashule.