Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe chatting with Minister Lindiwe Sisulu during a debate on the presidents State of the Nation Address at the National Assembly in Cape Town. Picture: Elmond Jiyane

THERE is an interesting story that is told in political circles, a story that, while somewhat unrelated to the recent cabinet reshuffle, offers instructive insights.

A week before the funeral of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, the top six officials of the ANC met at Luthuli House in what appeared to be a no-frills gig. President Jacob Zuma, probably off on stately matters, was a no-show.

His deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, started the drama. All ANC leaders who are members of the national executive committee (NEC) but who occupy senior provincial party positions must step down from those in line with article 12.8 of the ANC constitution. It reads: “If any Provincial Chairperson or Secretary is elected to the NEC in his or her own right or as a national official, such person shall vacate the Provincial position… provided extraordinary circumstances warrant an exception to this rule”.

In Zuma’s absence, Motlanthe’s argument won the day. It was a violation that needed correction. A decision was then taken to invite four premiers to step down as ANC chairpersons in their provinces, given their direct election to the ANC NEC, as this was in conflict with the ANC constitution – Gauteng chairman Paul Mashatile, Mpumalanga chairman David Mabuza, KwaZulu-Natal chairman Zweli Mkhize and Free State chairman Ace Magashule.

Then, lo and behold, the Malawians decided that Mutharika’s funeral would be on Monday April 23 – the day the decision was to be implemented. Zuma, presumably briefed on what was on the menu, chose not to attend the funeral, but send Motlanthe instead. Motlanthe’s political goons and fellow travellers wondered if he should not turn down Zuma and make himself available at this all-important meeting?

But no, they found a solution: it was in fact Zuma who argued that a decision taken in the absence of some top six officials at one of their meetings will not be reversed or rediscussed upon the return of others. This was apparently Zuma’s argument when other top six officials, including Motlanthe and treasurer-general Mathews Phosa, initially argued for a reversal of a decision taken by the ANC top six to charge former youth leader Julius Malema.

The decision was taken in their absence but they were forced to respect it. So, they convinced themselves, Zuma would, as they did, have to respect their decision. Well, Motlanthe went to bid Mutharika farewell and, predictably, a mini war ensued between Zuma, Phosa and deputy secretary-general Thandi Modise. Zuma, I am told, argued and won his case (some say forced his way) – regardless of the precedent.

In this way, Zuma won the day. Motlanthe’s plan to weaken him failed. Long live the king. It is a story confirmed by one member of the top six, and two others who have intimate knowledge of what happens at Luthuli House. The Sunday Independent reflected in part on this.

From then on, we are told, there is no love lost between Zuma and Motlanthe – in spite of the mirthless smiles shared, for the cameras I presume. And so it has been. A long arduous battle, away from cameras, at Luthuli House, at NEC meetings, employing all manner of things, including cabinet reshuffles to disorganise those seeking to de-campaign Zuma.

When the Malema review reared its head at the NEC early this week, he fought another battle, lived another day. It was rough and tough too. Motlanthe led the charge. I hear that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and Tony Yengeni had an unseemly match-up. After the farcical episode, a decision was taken to consign Malema to the wilderness. As I see it, Zuma was content with victory – not the content of victory. It’s, for me, an attitude that says “a pass is a pass – worrying about the quality of a pass is not for us”.

Emboldened, but consistently under attacks led by Motlanthe, Zuma decided he would not make the same mistakes his predecessor Thabo Mbeki made. He will only be out of the country when it is necessary. He will send Motlanthe away as much as possible. He, at home, will use his natural populist tendencies to connect with people. He will attend funerals. He will ride the Gautrain and be seen at stations where ordinary people are. He will attend community meetings in Soweto. Oh, man of the people. He is on the warpath. He knows that victory in Mangaung is secured way before December, way before delegates arrive in Mangaung.

He will remove people in security structures who are not seen to be loyal. Poor Lindiwe Sisulu. Once the mighty political head of Intelligence under Mbeki, demoted to Housing, then moved to Defence by Zuma, has now been reduced to leading positions given to ordinary, run-of the-mill types like Richard Baloyi at Public Service and Administration.

Is this it for Sisulu? When Mbeki moved her to Housing after a fall-out that involved the subsequent departure of the spy who wept, to borrow a witty headline about Billy Masetlha, it was reported Sisulu felt demoted.

This week the Mail & Guardian reported that she wept when she was told on the morning of the announcement she would be moved, dumped, you might say, in Public Service and Administration.

Her spokesperson said this was a fabrication, but the paper, relying on senior ANC sources, stood by its piece. It’s not important for me whether she cried or not. It is important to note she could not be kept in the security cluster. In there, it is only about trust. Zuma, I imagine, has not forgotten, or forgiven her for her words, seen as open support for Malema and those who wish to elevate Motlanthe.

“The ANC is not a pig, it does not eat its own children,” she once said. Zuma also most probably did not forget that she has a close relationship with Yengeni, whom she appointed to a defence review committee. Yengeni, it is well-known, is close to Malema and those against Zuma. A friend of my enemies, Zuma might have thought. So out Sisulu goes. All her efforts in supporting Zuma when Mbeki was at her throat have come to this – back to the ordinariness of the Mbeki years. Pity.

While Sisulu worked hard to get Zuma to the presidency, so did Malema, Fikile Mbalula, Yengeni, Zwelinzima Vavi and other former friends of the president. Today, for this lot (I would add Bheki Cele, but shame), it is another battle. I would understand if Sisulu feels worse than demoted. Insulted, is more like it. She is a Sisulu, Struggle royalty, for crying out loud!

But Zuma, the master tactician, has put her right in the eye of a storm. Sisulu, despite her long protestations, has mishandled the misconduct of soldiers who marched on the Union Buildings.

This has cost the state millions in salaries of soldiers who are at home who she was forced by courts to keep paying, plus legal fees.

And now Zuma thrusts her in the union hotbed called Public Service and Administration. And this happens as unions announced this week that they would declare a wage dispute as the government terminated talks after offering 6.5 percent, against headline inflation of 6.1 percent. Unions want 8 percent salary hike.

This, if anybody needs reminding, is vintage Gedleyihlekisa. As we march forward to Mangaung, expect the street fighter, or is it stick fighter, of Nkandla to see off his challengers, to throw them curve balls. Like Motlanthe’s sojourn to Lilongwe as he was being dealt with.

I doubt Sisulu saw it coming. Malema did not expect to be as silent as he is now.

Who is next? Exciting, this.