With the upcoming ANC national policy conference in peril, President Jacob Zuma has lobbied ANC leaders in a desperate bid for unity, confiding that he fears for his legacy.

Faced with the ticking time bomb of legal challenges in its key provinces, the ANC leadership is attempting to reach political consensus to prevent court actions from bringing its national conference to a halt.

The interventions come at a time when polarisation in the party is so pronounced that provincial legal battles have the potential to stop the conference from taking place.

ANC provincial leaders who met Zuma reacted with scepticism to his calls for unity, denouncing it as “too little, too late”, and quizzed the president on his vocal backing of party presidential candidate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

On Thursday, the Pietermaritzburg high court reserved judgment on an application by branches, led by Vryheid councillor Lawrence Dube, for a declaratory order enforcing the removal of the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive committee from office. The court also reserved judgment on an application for leave to appeal its September 12 ruling that the provincial conference was “unlawful” and its outcome null and void.

On Wednesday, the Free State provincial conference was effectively stopped from going ahead by a Bloemfontein high court ruling that branch general meetings were unlawful and needed to be rerun.

In the space of a week, not only has Zuma met the seven ANC presidential hopefuls in the race to replace him, but he also met the party’s provincial top brass to ask them to enforce ground rules for the elective conference to defuse tensions among delegates.

ANC insiders told the Mail & Guardian this week that Zuma made a passionate plea for unity while meeting the party’s top six officials, presidential hopefuls, provincial chairs and secretaries. 

He appealed to the provincial leaders to ensure that all delegates attending the conference did not wear T-shirts bearing the faces of their preferred candidates and that they desisted from singing divisive songs, to avoid collapsing the conference.

Although Zuma’s suggestion to have a losing presidential candidate automatically become the party’s deputy president was rejected by most delegates at the ANC policy conference, it appears more leaders are warming to the idea.

A senior ANC leader close to the negotiations told the M&G this week that provincial leaders were seriously considering proposals to change the structure of the party’s national officials in a bid to ensure the party’s December conference does not implode.