Fikile Mbalula has made it clear that he has not switched sides to back a second-term for President Jacob Zuma.

 President Jacob Zuma’s lobbyists maintain that Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula is considering ditching the Kgalema Motlanthe camp.

This comes after the former youth leader was dropped from Gauteng ANC’s provincial leadership’s list of candidates to be nominated for the party posts. Mbalula met Zuma this week.

Mbalula was key in the campaign that led to Zuma being elected as the party president in 2007, but later triggered a crusade to replace Msholozi with Motlanthe when the ANC meets in Mangaung, Free State, in December.

The Sunday Independent understands that Mbalula saw President Jacob Zuma on Monday afternoon in the latter’s office at the ANC’s headquarters, Luthuli House.

The meeting was viewed by some Zuma campaigners as a political détente, and a forum to cement relations between the two erstwhile friends-turned-rivals and to discuss Mbalula’s future after Mangaung.

Mbalula this week refused to confirm if such a meeting took place.

“I am a cabinet minister and a member of the (ANC’s) national executive and working committees. I meet with my cabinet colleagues, including the president… and I meet with my party colleagues. I don’t discuss contents of such meetings, and I don’t account to sources,” he told The Sunday Independent.

A Luthuli House staffer, who has knowledge of the meeting and asked not to be named because he was not allowed to openly discuss party issues, confirmed that the meeting took place but did not have details of the discussions.

“It was one on one… If there is anyone with details, it’s Mbalula and [Zuma]. Anyone claiming [to know the details] is lying to you. [Mbalula and Zuma] haven’t met here [Luthuli House] in a long while since their differences of opinion regarding party direction and leadership preference. It may well be that they discussed other non-party matters, but the meeting was one of those rare occurrences,” said the staffer.

A Zuma aide, who could not be named due to rules governing communications in the Presidency, confirmed that Mbalula had seen Zuma, and that it was “unusual” for the two to meet one-on-one, even on government matters.

“I am not sure what they discussed, but [Mbalula] has come back to his senses… Gauteng didn’t… nominate him [as a candidate for the position of ANC secretary-general. He must stop following people who worship money if he wants to grow politically. We will groom him and ground him.”

Zuma’s office referred queries to Luthuli House. ANC spokesman Keith Khoza said he was neither aware of, nor briefed on such a meeting. However, a Mbalula close confidante - who refused to be quoted because of what he described as a charged atmosphere - dismissed the assertion that the meeting between the sports minister and Zuma had anything to do with the party’s bitter succession.

He argued that the meeting was government-related and that the Sports minister had no intention of crossing the Mangaung floor to the Zuma camp.

“We are aware of people trying to tarnish the name of comrade Mbalula by circulating these malicious rumours to cause confusion and portray him as an untrustworthy cadre. These are just rumours circulated by desperate people from the other [Zuma] faction.

“It won’t succeed,” said the Mbalula ally who asked not to be named because “one needs to be careful in such a climate”.

Mbalula - who has until recently been associated with the Julius Malema lobby to unseat Zuma - was approached by several Zuma lobbyists, including his former ANC Youth League comrade and one-time Zuma communications adviser Zizi Kodwa. Kodwa confirmed he and several others approached Mbalula, “but we want to make him understand that it is about building the party”.

“He can’t be part of a coalition that can’t be defined politically. There has to be a generational mix but the generation of 1942 cannot be forced out, they will hand over naturally… It was important to continue to talk to him. It is not about contesting [ANC secretary-general] Gwede [Mantashe], he must not contest for the sake of contesting… If he contests Gwede he will lose. He’s got the future in the ANC. We can’t afford to lose good comrades in the ANC, and especially good comrades like Mbaks [Mbalula]. We can’t repeat our Polokwane [2007 conference] mistakes. He can’t be party to a faction that wants to destroy the party,” said Kodwa.

He confirmed that Mbalula was amenable to their proposal. “He is a comrade. He is not a factionalist. He is the son, the child of the ANC.”

Asked if this would not be seen as Mbalula’s betrayal of his friend Malema, Kodwa said: “We are not friends. We were never friends. We are comrades, what is paramount is the organisation.”

Mbalula refused to comment about his position in the midst of factional tensions.

“Branches will decide in an open process. It is not my call, it is the call of structures. It is them who will make the determination,” he said.

Ironically, one of the campaigners who approached Mbalula to switch allegiance is businessman Sello Rasethaba, a key ally of Mbalula and Malema, who appears to have warmed up to the Zuma camp. “We would encourage Mbalula to work with Zuma, once all ANC processes have been followed, and if he is approached to work with the president,” Rasethaba said.

Another lobbyist - who asked not to be named - said: “Mbaks [Mbalula] has never had a problem with JZ [Zuma]. He has never said he doesn’t want Zuma. You can go and check. Nowhere does he say he doesn't want JZ.”

He also said that Mbalula’s backing of Zuma won’t mean abandoning and betraying Malema. He said: “Why must our lives depend on Malema? This is politics. People are looking at their own interests.”

The Sunday Independent understands that Mbalula was not promised any senior position in the ANC’s top six posts in the Zuma camp.

Instead, he was told that the Zuma camp would make sure that he is included as an additional member of the NEC, the highest decision-making body between conferences.

The promise comes after Gauteng dumped Mbalula - who was until recently a punted contender to challenge Mantashe as the party’s chief administrative officer - in favour of the reluctant Joel Netshitenzhe or, as a compromise, retaining the incumbent secretary-general.

Mbalula features as the last option, according to a Gauteng provincial executive committee member who asked not to be named because “we are not supposed to go public with this”.

“Some in our PEC don’t want this man completely, they don’t even want him as an ordinary NEC member,” he confessed. The PEC member said Mbalula disappointed “our members” by not doing enough to ensure that delegate numbers were not rigged.

“He is lazy and doesn’t go to the branches where it matters most. You will always find him at parties when our structures are desperately in need of him. He doesn’t pitch at meetings and has allowed Gwede to run the auditing and verification of delegates.

“He has the power, as head of campaign, to influence and monitor what’s happening,” the PEC member said. - Sunday Independent