IF YOU were to believe the comments made by Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane and African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe in the aftermath of a revelation that the Gauteng ANC was planning to use former Thabo Mbeki to appeal to the black middle class ahead of the national elections next year, you would think that their defence of President Jacob Zuma’s "broad" appeal was about defending the image of No 1.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Gauteng ANC secretary David Makhura was quoted as saying that Mbeki would be deployed to speak with middle class audiences, while Zuma would be used for mass meetings where the audience would presumably be more accepting of his populist bent.

"The president is leading our direct contact with the people. He is not going to be in those house meetings in the suburbs. We are using him for big community meetings and door-to-door work. We are taking him to the people in our communities in townships and informal settlements … areas that are our traditional strongholds," Makhura was quoted as saying.

Mantashe pointed out that deployment would be controlled from Luthuli House. He said: "There is no constituency and profile of constituency that suits a particular individual. We will send a person who we think will be able to deal with the audience that will be attended by that leader."

Mokonyane, also head of the party’s mobilisation committee, was more blunt. "There should never have been an attempt at this kind of reflection and this matter should not have arisen at all," she said, as quoted in the Mail & Guardian.

"Although the provinces can adopt the strategy for their material conditions, this does not mean provinces can decide how and when we utilise ANC resources and leaders. President Zuma is the face of the campaign and not the face of the campaign for a particular stratum of society. He is the face when we meet the academia, people in informal settlements, business and everyone. The black middle class is a creation of the ANC policy and it is the leader of the ANC who must address them."

I don’t think that the ANC’s difficulty with Mbeki stems from a desire to protect Zuma’s image as much as it is motivated by the partisan friction that saw the former toppled under dramatic circumstances at the party’s national conference in Polokwane in 2008.

It wasn’t just a Zuma versus Mbeki battle, of course. Even after the party’s conference in Mangaung at the end of last year, the schisms that Polokwane laid bare are still evident.

But it is also worth noting that there have been rumblings about South Africa’s burgeoning middle class may be distancing itself from the party. Mokonyane is right that the ANC created it, but it has failed to deliver services at a level that is acceptable to it. Ironically, the ruling party’s success created the seeds for its own downfall in that sense.

A research document stemming from the Gauteng ANC earlier this year articulated this exact fear. It said: "The days of winning Gauteng automatically are drawing to a close. Even a dip in our support will energise the opposition massively. There is a clear and present danger that we have lost or are losing the black middle class."

"The black middle class and first-time voters of five years ago who voted Cope are not coming back to the ANC but going DA.

"Cope may be dead in the water, the DA is still seen as white-led, but what will Agang do? The black and white middle class will love it. How do we ensure that it fractures the opposition rather than cement it?" the document says.

It is quite fascinating that the Gauteng ANC seems to believe that Mbeki would be vital to bringing this "lost" class back to it. If it believes that these are the people who formed the core of Cope’s voting bloc, then it must surely recognise that these are people who left the ANC because of dissatisfaction or displeasure with the Zuma faction that took power?

I’m tempted to think that Makhura and the others in the Gauteng ANC have failed to consider that even if Luthuli House was to agree to using Mbeki, and the man himself agreed, the intended audiences might still think take umbrage to the thin fronting? It makes me wonder just how well the ANC in general understands the nature of the discontent against it.

I think you would be hard-pressed to find a significant number of middle class voters who stopped voting for the ANC for reasons other than the outcome of Polokwane.

Notice too how it was Mokonyane who was sent out to bat for Zuma on this one, against Makhura. We have an outspoken Zuma acolyte speaking out against a prominent member of a group that had designs on ousting No 1 in Mangaung.

Does Luthuli House not fear that giving Mbeki prominence in the election campaign would give the remnants of his faction something to coalesce around, to build momentum on and then perhaps launch another bid to take back control of the ANC?

The sad thing is that the ANC needs Mbeki. He is a former leader of the party and as such, a valuable intellectual asset. Can you imagine US President Barack Obama deciding not to use Bill Clinton to help him galvanise the electorate, because of some past grudge? This is how silly the ANC’s preferred method of choosing leaders is.

Mbeki knows how to win and could have helped contribute to the election strategy and campaign. It is the demons of Polokwane that make his own party wary of involving him.