Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s 15-year career as a member of the ANC’s powerful top six could come to a close later this month in Mangaung. Motlanthe was elected party secretary-general in Mafikeng in 1997, promoted to deputy president in the 2007 putsch in Polokwane, and hopes to seize the presidency in Mangaung.

But this no longer seems likely, since the numbers have simply refused to stack up for Motlanthe and his supporters.

Technically, November 30 was the ANC’s deadline for nominations from all its structures, including provinces and leagues which had to hold provincial nominations conferences to consolidate their candidate lists that originated from the branch nominations.

These nominations must be lodged with the electoral commission of the ANC by no later than the first week in December, after which the electoral commission will approach all those nominated to check whether they are accepting nomination.

Of course, the candidates are free to decide whether they are available and can do so up until the nominations close on the floor at the conference.

But judging by the outcome of the provincial nomination conferences, Motlanthe’s chances have all but faded.

With about two weeks to go before the ANC changes guard, the ABZ (Anyone But Zuma) crowd, also known as the Forces for Change, who have spearheaded the anti-Zuma push, using Motlanthe as their candidate to try to dislodge Zuma from power in the ANC, appear not to have mustered sufficient numbers to ensure their man not only contests the presidency, but wins the election in Mangaung.

But it’s not Motlanthe’s inability to successfully contest Zuma for the presidency of the ANC that has sealed his fate. It is his failure to get nominated as Zuma’s deputy that suggests that he is unlikely to be returned to the party’s top six.

The ANC does make provision for candidates to be nominated from the floor, provided that they can get 25 percent of the voting delegates to back their nomination.

But this scenario is unlikely to affect the election for the top six, given the slates that have emerged thus far from the provinces and leagues.

But even in the unlikely event that Motlanthe somehow gets on the ballot for president as well as deputy president, his chances are slim in both contests.

If he challenges Zuma, he is likely to lose, given Zuma’s numbers, and will definitely rule himself out as deputy president, given that Zuma’s backers are hardly going to help install a deputy who challenged their presidential candidate.

A Motlanthe challenge for deputy president will also split the anti-Zuma forces, who have nominated other candidates such as Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale, who got the nod from the youth league last week.

Of course, Phosa and Sexwale could withdraw in favour of Motlanthe, but it is difficult to see what would persuade them to take this altruistic course for a man who, by then, will have lost in his bid for the presidency.

While Zuma has maintained the numerical edge in his bid for a second term as ANC president, his supporters have always maintained that Motlanthe was their candidate of choice as his deputy.

But all that changed last week when the ANC’s largest province, KwaZulu-Natal, chose nominated ANC businessman Cyril Ramaphosa as its candidate to replace Motlanthe as Zuma’s deputy.

The ANC Women’s League quickly followed suit, setting the tone for other Zuma supporting provinces.

By Friday morning Mpumalanga endorsed the same slate for its top six set in motion by KZN. So, too, did the veterans’ league.

The Eastern Cape followed suit by endorsing Zuma and Ramaphosa in the early hours of yesterday morning. While Gauteng nominated Motlanthe for president, they did so by a very narrow margin. Motlanthe received 238 votes while Zuma received 173. More interestingly, Ramaphosa received 175 votes for the position of ANC deputy president, which underscores my point about Motlanthe’s chances slipping fast.

The other big loser is, of course, Sport Minister Fikle Mbalula, who lost out against ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe. Mantashe received 249 votes compared with Mbalula’s 148.

Mbalula’s poor showing in Gauteng underlines the extent to which the anti-Zuma forces have failed to cohere around the top six slate.

Free State has also endorsed Zuma and has opted for Baleka Mbete as its deputy president candidate.

In Limopopo, at the time of going to print, Zuma-supporting branches looked set to capture this province. In the event that they don’t, the margin for victory for Motlanthe will also be extremely small.

So why did Zuma’s forces dump Motlanthe in favour of Ramaphosa so close to the conference?

The answer to that question can be traced back to Motlanthe’s refusal to signal either privately or publicly whether he wanted the top spot in the party.

While Motlanthe’s backers made no secret of their desire to see him take on Zuma, Motlanthe decided to keep mum.

Those who claim to have had meetings with him to try to understand what his plans were, say that he is impossible to read at the best of times. Depending on who in the ANC one speaks to, Motlanthe was either dead-set against contesting Zuma, or in it to his eyeballs.

This ambiguity is vintage Motlanthe, who did the same five years ago. He also kept the ANC in suspense at the Polokwane conference in 2007, when he played his hand only at the very last moment and stood on the Zuma slate for the position of deputy president, with his support being key in Zuma’s defeat of President Thabo Mbeki.

But his reticence has backfired this time round.

Zuma backers were not prepared to go to Mangaung without knowing whether Motlanthe was an opponent or an ally.

Moreover, the insistence of top Motlanthe aides to the media that he plans to challenge Zuma if nominated by the branches didn’t help to assure Zuma backers that they were not going to be double-crossed at the last minute.

The Left and some ANC powerbrokers that back Zuma’s second-term bid, but prefer Motlanthe to Ramaphosa, were unable to convince the bulk of the ANC’s rank and file that Motlanthe had no real ambition to challenge Zuma.

In the caucuses that were held to thrash out the candidates and where the horse trading happened, backers of Motlanthe for deputy president were outnumbered.

The ANC provinces and leagues who put Ramaphosa in play argued that Motlanthe had left it too late and that their decision was motivated by his lack of candour rather than their rejection of him as a suitable candidate.

What seems clear now is that the Zuma crowd has decided to move beyond Motlanthe, and has set sights on putting in place a team it hopes will not only lead the ANC, but also kick-start the party’s 2014 elections campaign.

With Ramaphosa on the ticket, many leaders in the ANC hope the Zuma-Ramaphosa duo can capture the ANC’s traditional voter base among the rural and urban poor, as well as those sections of the black middle class and business who need to be convinced that the ANC remains a broad church on economic, social and political policy matters and will best represent their aspirations in the government.

They are convinced that Ramaphosa is, in any case, a better bet to reassure and recapture that constituency in a tough election. The loser is Motlanthe, the man who built a political career out of committing to nothing too soon.

n Brown is CNBC Africa anchor for Political Exchange, a current affairs programme