Until President Jacob Zuma did not appear at last Saturday’s Youth Day celebrations in Port Elizabeth and chose to go to Mexico for the Group of 20 meeting instead, he seemed like an unstoppable candidate – possibly even unopposed – for the ruling movement’s presidency, to be decided in Mangaung in December.

One thing that cannot be said of the president is that he is a coward. It was certainly not the case when he was axed as deputy president in 2005 by former president Thabo Mbeki.

It certainly did not apply to him when he appeared at the ANC’s national general council in Pretoria the following year.

He sat, as ANC deputy president, next to the man who fired him. While many in the movement publicly shunned him – and privately shut him out of party informal gatherings during this dark period – he was carefully massaging the branches for what became Polokwane, the routing of the Mbeki faction.

He had all the time in the world to garner the sympathies of the underdog in the movement, those who felt dispossessed or marginalised. He carefully crafted an almost magic political wand in the process, despite the fact that he was nowhere near as articulate, and certainly not as suave, as Mbeki.

Since becoming president, whenever Zuma could not appear at a party function, he in good time sent one of his underlings along, mainly Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. This time, significantly, the latter was under the impression until the 11th hour, that Zuma would be attending the youth rally.

With Julius Malema, who still carries the support of the ANC youth but not the title of leader, whipping up anti-Zuma sentiment, the president may well have received a hostile response from the Nelson Mandela Bay youth. It was, however, a mistake not to confront his opposition.

It is now clear that the ANC is horribly divided – from the national executive committee downward – over whether Zuma should remain on. His non-appearance may just give the anti-Zuma faction the guts to band together and find someone who can beat him at the hustings. Last Saturday could well have been a turning point in his presidency.

What will be the impact of a win (if it is pulled off) by one of Zuma’s opponents?

It could be Motlanthe, who appears to successfully straddle divides between nationalists, socialists and communists. He doesn’t get into political hot water when he supports measures unpopular with “the masses”, such as his public utterings in favour of Walmart’s takeover of Massmart.

He, like Zuma five years ago, is also charging all over the country addressing audiences, mopping up after the messes of many of his colleagues, putting out fires. Naturally, he has not announced any intention of running for office.

Ironically, Motlanthe with a trade union background is viewed as far more friendly to business than Zuma, whose family connections with business deals with the government niggles the business world.

Meanwhile, delivering the Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture last week, Motlanthe significantly slammed members using the ANC as a “stepping stone” for self-enrichment. He was also critical of Marxist jargon in the ANC policy conference discussion papers.

Although Motlanthe tends to talk in riddles, occasionally he appears to stand for principle. Whether that is enough to parachute him into the top job remains to be seen. It is, however, now within the bounds of possibility.