SELDOM has so much been written by so many indicating so little as is pouring out of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) national conference in Mangaung.

As the conference gets under its messy way, with war talk between factions, credential disputes, insult hurling, the threat of legal interdiction and at least one assassination attempt, it is clear that there is really only one issue of political consequence to mark what is supposed to be a landmark event in the ANC’s 100-year history: why is Cyril Ramaphosa making a comeback 18 years after he should have been tapped as president Nelson Mandela’s successor?

Everything else taking place at Mangaung has been a foregone conclusion for months.

It has long been obvious that the interlocking patronage system that President Jacob Zuma has established within the ANC would ensure his automatic re-election, and that his disillusioned deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, would challenge him for the presidency, knowing he would lose but regarding it as "a matter of principle" that the dysfunctional Zuma should not go unchallenged.

It has been evident, too, that whatever policy decisions are taken in Mangaung will matter little, for the government has a mountain of resolutions taken at Polokwane five years ago that have not been implemented.

Another dozen or so taken now will simply swell the backlog.

Implementation is the ANC’s critical problem. The government is paralysed by ideological gridlock.

The fault line cuts through its economic ministries, with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Planning Minister Trevor Manuel on one side and Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies on the other. To favour one side is to alienate the other. So nothing gets done.

This is where Ramaphosa comes into the picture, with his last-minute acceptance of nomination for the party’s deputy presidency.

I have a high regard for Ramaphosa. He and the National Party’s Roelf Meyer were the heroes of the Convention for a Democratic SA, establishing a bond that piloted this country through a series of major transitional crises into our democratic era.

It was Ramaphosa who was the fulcrum figure around whom the Constitutional Assembly crafted our new constitution. He is a master strategist and a shrewd negotiator. He founded the National Union of Mineworkers and went on to be secretary-general of the ANC at the first elective conference after it was unbanned.

Mandela announced publicly that Ramaphosa was his personal choice to be his deputy and successor, but that he was outvoted by his leadership colleagues. As compensation, the admiring Mandela offered him the job of foreign minister, which would have placed him number three after then deputy president Thabo Mbeki.

But Ramaphosa, who didn’t get on with Mbeki, declined and went off in a huff to make a fortune in business.

Had he not done so, he would have succeeded Mbeki in 2007 and been president by now. But he never showed any regret for his decision, which has made him the second-richest black person in SA after billionaire mining magnate Patrice Motsepe.

So why does he want to come back to politics now?

Why does he want to give up the chairmanship of Shanduka and McDonald’s and a dozen other directorships, the whole glamorous world of international business, to become deputy to a man he was ranked ahead of before and who is now widely regarded as the most inept leader the ANC has ever had?

What is in it for him?

Aye, that is the question! I cannot believe anyone with Ramaphosa’s talents, energy and ambition is prepared to be a wallflower in Zuma’s suite of presidential offices the way poor Motlanthe has been with visible frustration and unhappiness.

Not for the next seven years, anyway, at which point Zuma will complete his second term and Ramaphosa will inherit the presidential nomination for the 2019 election.

Ramaphosa’s belated acceptance of the nomination for the deputy presidency tells me the shrewd negotiator has been driving a bargain with Zuma.

It was KwaZulu-Natal that nominated him, which suggests Zuma was behind the initiative.

The fact that Zuma wanted him in the job, hopefully to give him success and a better legacy in his second and last term, would have put Ramaphosa in a strong negotiating position.

Had he withdrawn at the last minute, Zuma would have been in an awkward spot, having to accept one of the other nominees, Tokyo Sexwale or Mathews Phosa, both of whom are in the anti-Zuma camp.

So what is the bargain? That Ramaphosa can be the national candidate in 2014? I doubt that. Zuma wants that second term to repair his legacy, and he wants Ramaphosa to achieve that for him.

So my guess is that he will delegate considerable authority to his new deputy, while he himself adopts a more detached head-of-state role.

Of course Zuma, as president, would still have final executive authority. There was some speculation earlier about Ramaphosa becoming prime minister under Zuma, but the constitution makes no provision for that.

The president can only delegate authority to his deputy and his Cabinet ministers. How he intends doing that has, I suspect, been the subject of negotiations between the two men.

Of course, all of this is pure speculation on my part. But I cannot see why else Ramaphosa should have made such a leap backwards in his career history, or why Zuma would have wanted him to do so.

It is therefore a matter of conjecture, of fitting pieces of a political jigsaw puzzle together.

If I am right, and Ramaphosa does become an active deputy president as Mbeki was, it will be a matter of considerable importance to the country. For Ramaphosa was deputy chairman of the National Planning Commission that was appointed in May 2009, and whose widely acclaimed report setting out a long-term strategic and development programme for the country was presented to the government last June.

It struck me as significant that Zuma devoted so much of his opening address on Sunday to that National Development Plan and that he sounded positive about it.

He said the plan was still the work of the commission, but now was the time for the ANC to consider whether to adopt it.

Is this the overall game plan to break the gridlock, for Ramaphosa to become deputy president and drive the National Development Plan to give Zuma a successful second term and thus a burnished legacy? Maybe.

But, if so, why has Trevor Manuel announced that he is quitting his long membership of the ANC’s powerful national executive committee in tones that carried a whiff of disillusionment and led to speculation that he is on his way out of politics altogether?

He was chairman of the National Planning Commission. Why would he want to leave the commission in his moment of triumph?

But then again, perhaps he is destined to become the project’s CEO.

Given the ANC’s habit of not allowing its candidates for leadership to campaign and explain their policies to the country at large for the people to judge, we simply don’t know.

All we can do is speculate.

Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.