This question requires a lot of speculation and unfortunately, there is very little information about it. The reason for this is, plausibly anyway, that the media covering the episode was so delighted at the prospect of humiliating, weakening and replacing Thabo Mbeki with someone more appealing to big business (and more promising for the long-term goal of getting rid of the ANC) that there was little desire to address the issue.
The South African left, and especially the Communist Party, made some serious errors in the past. In the 1980s they seized virtual control of the ANC’s military wing, and much of its underground too, but instead of triumphantly marching to Pretoria, they managed only a handful of not very effectual attacks; meanwhile the apartheid state negotiated largely via the ANC’s diplomats, which put enormous power in the hands of Thabo Mbeki.
After the unbanning the left made similar errors. It was in 1992 that the SACP promised a “Leipzig option” of mass mobilisation which they proved incapable of actually producing. Again in the post-Codesa negotiations the SACP was forced to gradually abandon its left-wing commitments. All it could do was assist with the trade union COSATU’s drafting of a vaguely developmental wish-list which eventually became the Reconstruction and Development Programme. Meanwhile the power in the ANC shifted more and more into Mbeki’s camp.
After the elections, the RDP turned out to be inadequate, and the left lobbied to have it expanded. Unfortunately (for them, anyway) they were defeated; the RDP was downgraded from a Ministry to a programme, and the new chief goal of the ANC turned out to be reducing the budget deficit at all costs — including a massive privatisation programme and a desperate dash for foreign investment to promote growth, which failed dismally (partly because of the global economic turbulence of the time). Gradually not only the SACP but also COSATU became marginalised, perceived as constantly complaining without providing much support for the ANC’s electoral goals.
Some of these problems were apparently resolved at the 2002 ANC Conference, where Mbeki magnanimously offered high positions to SACP leadership figures. By this time the ANC’s attempts to woo white big business had failed disastrously; white big business was too wedded to the growing right-wing Democratic Alliance. However, it seems clear that the SACP and COSATU continued to feel resentment at being once again marginalised and patronised.
As a result, when Zuma began having serious troubles with the law and began casting about for allies, the SACP and COSATU were his logical choice. They responded very positively; from 2004 Zuma suddenly was presented as a viable alternative to Thabo Mbeki, and was celebrated on the left on these grounds. This was not a new tactic; in 2002 the Treatment Action Campaign had gone to Zuma to seek support, presumably trying to divide him from Mbeki. (That did not work so well.) However, on the face of it, these parties were endorsing a candidate with very limited potential; Zuma was implicated in corruption and was eventually forced out of high office.
Later, when Zuma’s rape trial began, Mbeki put it to the NEC that he should actually be removed as Deputy President of the ANC, not just of the country. This would have been an extremely sensible move; it was hugely embarrassing for the party to have its Deputy President in the witness-box admitting to having had unprotected sex with an HIV+ woman who claimed that she had not consented to the sex, and having him then make repugnant sexist remarks about her and having his lawyers intimidate her (in the time-honoured way of rape defendants’ lawyers). But the NEC decided not to sack Zuma — obviously Zuma commanded a good deal of support in the NEC. Part of this was undoubtedly the presence of some SACP people in the NEC (ironically, because of Mbeki’s 2002 olive-branches). Part was probably a desire not to rock the boat, and expect too much personal morality or probity from NEC leaders.
So this indicates the roots of the Zuma coalition. On one hand leftists who felt a sense of entitlement which had not been fulfilled. On the other hand, people who were a little afraid of too much honesty. In both cases, Zuma was seen as a fairly pliable person who would do what he was told, and who did not have too many principles. (His negotiations with Inkatha had required a series of concessions to that organisation which at the time was the ANC’s most implacable enemy — even though this was surely necessary).
Mbeki is often presented as unpopular within the ANC. Self-evidently this is not so; unpopular people do not become two-term presidents. However, it is probably true that Mbeki was not liked. He was approved-of because his policies worked, but many were uncomfortable with his hectoring, managerial style. He was prone to punish poor performance; weak members of the government were often weeded out. Mbeki, however, particularly hated disloyalty (which is why he took the attacks by the SACP and COSATU on his government so much to heart; as he frequently pointed out, these were organisations which endorsed his policies in his presence, and then denounced his policies to their constituencies). He was not unforgiving (Pallo Jordan, for example, was sacked but later reinstated) but this created an impression of weakness which was not, perhaps, totally unfounded. As a result he had a lot of enemies who pretended to be opposed to his policies, turning the personal into the political.
So between a modest amount of dissent within the ANC and some strong potential supporters, Zuma had a beginning. Meanwhile, he had the advantage that, as Deputy President of the ANC thanks to the NEC’s support, he was the administrative heir apparent even though he was obviously not Mbeki’s choice. This put Zuma in the running, but it did not put him in a winning position. How could he prevent Mbeki from using his own power and authority against him?
The answer is interesting. Firstly, remember that Zuma’s allies included the crooked mogul Schabir Shaik, running his R300 million commercial empire from his prison hospital, and with plenty of contacts in the corporate fraternity. Another ally was Brett Kebble, the fraudster mastermind of RandGold who, as it turned out, was the bankroller for both the ANC Youth League and the Young Communists’ League, both of which organisations housed a number of corporate wheeler-dealers; Kebble’s murder, allegedly engineered by ANC crony and alleged drug kingpin Glenn Agliotti, no doubt cut the funds for these organisations, but they both continued to have their corporate connections, and both organisations were essentially Zuma fronts; when Young Communist celebrity Mazibuko Jara raised questions about support for Zuma, he was unceremoniously purged; the Youth League lacked anyone with the intellectual integrity to follow Jara’s kamikaze approach.
All this means that Zuma was an extremely business-friendly person, meaning subservient to corporate interests, but also extremely useful to those corporate interests because he could be represented as a left-winger and a populist, even though no evidence has ever been presented to suggest he was either.
What is also interesting about Zuma’s supporters was that they immediately began a campaign of personal attacks against Mbeki. The gist of this campaign was that Mbeki was personally corrupt, that he was dishonest, that he was power-hungry, that he was misanthropic, and even that he was racist (Zuma assiduously courted not only white business but also the white right wing). In addition, the old lies about Mbeki’s AIDS denialism, his involvement in the arms deal and his supposed sympathy for Zimbabwe were trotted out. There was also the claim that Mbeki hated the poor. With the exception of this last claim, every one of the personal attacks on Mbeki made by ANC members supporting Zuma, were claims which had originally been made as attacks on the ANC by white-oriented parties; most of the core claims dated back to the apartheid era, and most of the detailed claims had been invented by white journalists, such as Mail and Guardian political editor Howard Barrell, in the late 1990s, usually in pursuit of their support for white-led political parties.
Now, this seems extremely self-destructive. Why should ANC members be echoing the propaganda invented and promoted by their enemies? The answer is simple: the press lapped it up. While the press often criticised Zuma as a person, the vast bulk of coverage of Zuma entailed repeating the accusations made against Mbeki by Zuma’s supporters. (Not, of course, by Zuma himself; he had his image to think of, and a direct attack against Mbeki would have been suicidal for his popularity in the ANC.) This all gave new life to the old lies which had become stale through repetition, for now they were being repeated by people with black skins.
It is not clear whether there was a deal between the corporate media and Zuma’s corporate backers, or merely a convergence of interests between the two. However, the result was that between 2005 and 2007 the press became effectively a propaganda instrument for Jacob Zuma — and in return, Jacob Zuma’s supporters became effectively supporters of conservative corporate propaganda in South Africa. It seems likely that this must have helped Zuma’s covert fundraising, for all that his front-organisation, the “Friends of Jacob Zuma”, seemed to constantly teeter on the verge of bankruptcy. At any rate, Zuma’s campaign never ran short of money.
Obviously the press does not control opinion in South Africa — but it remains quite influential in ANC circles, especially in affluent, urban areas. More to the point, the ANC was treated again to the spectacle of a President being viciously and dishonestly vilified and unable to fight back. His Minister of Health was similarly vilified, as was his Commissioner of Police (in the latter case, not so unfairly, although the press did not know this). This did not exactly encourage people from coming out of the shadows to support him; those who did, like Mosiua Lekota, faced the full wrath of the private propaganda machine. It seems very likely that Mbeki’s supporters were afraid to confront this; as a result, Mbeki was the only person who, with nothing to lose, could safely run for a third term as President of the ANC, the only strong candidate against Zuma. This meant that Zuma’s campaign would not be a walk-over (although the press systematically pretended that Mbeki was running illegally for a third term as President of the country, thus tarring him with their customary Mugabe brush).
In the run-up to the 2007 provincial ANC Congresses a new idea appeared in the media. This was that there were flaws in both Zuma and Mbeki. Therefore a third candidate was needed. A responsible candidate of the people who could be trusted. Who could this person be? Two names were quickly put forward: Cyril Ramaphosa, who had abandoned his responsibilities in the ANC after losing the Presidency race in 1997 in order to make money for himself, and Tokyo Sexwale, who had abandoned his responsibilities in the ANC after losing the Premiership of Gauteng in 1999 in order to make money for himself. In other words, the two press candidates were people who put private greed ahead of public service — a little like Zuma.
The much-touted Ramaphosa did not, eventually, stand. Sexwale did; his name was on the slate, particularly in Mbeki-sympathetic provinces, picking up potential delegates. Immediately after the provincial elections, Sexwale threw in his lot with Zuma (whom, it turned out, he had already been supporting financially). He had, in short, been a stalking-horse whose role had been to disrupt Mbeki’s position.
The provincial results were interesting. The Youth League, of course, supported Zuma. The Women’s League, less of course, supported Zuma in defiance of their own constitution (the slate they voted for was almost entirely male, although later a few females were inserted in the Zuma camp as a sop to their consciences). The Zuma side took KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, arguably a sign of Zulu tribal identity. They also took Gauteng (where the ANC’s membership is incredibly small) and the Free State and Northern Cape (where the ANC is extremely urbanised and narrow). The provinces which went for Mbeki were the poorest provinces in the country — Limpopo, Eastern Cape and North-West — plus the Western Cape, where the ANC’s support is strongest in the rural areas and weakest in Cape Town. In short, the rural poor went for Mbeki, the urban rich for Zuma. This was probably a side-effect of the fact that the SACP and COSATU have their strongest support in the cities and in middle-class black areas where the ANC dominates. But one should also note that Zuma support correlates with strong media presences and, very largely, with affluent whites, who had no vote but perhaps had a lot to say.
And so Zuma got his three-fifths at Polokwane, despite being an unsuitable candidate. A close race, and one which the good guys could have won had they worked harder. However, there was too much apathy, and too little concern for the future. Not an unusual situation in today’s South Africa.