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Disputes Delay Proceedings at S. African ANC Conference

Disputes rooted in the leadership struggle between South African President Thabo Mbeki and ruling-party deputy Jacob Zuma have caused the African National Congress to delay filling six top posts. Delia Robertson reports from the conference in Polokwane that party elders are negotiating behind closed doors on compromises that would enable its National Conference to elect leaders and move on to policy matters.

The disputes erupted publicly at the opening session of the African National Congress National Conference, when Youth League Secretary General Sihle Zikalala confronted party chairman and Defense Minister Terror Lekota before 4,000 delegates and hundreds of reporters.

Senior party member and Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe, said it was an unprecedented display.

"I must say the atmosphere yesterday," said Radebe, "was not what we are used to in ANC conferences. I am sure the people of the media noticed even the way we sang the national anthem in the morning, so I think the tension was very visible in the conference, you know because you were there, you could cut it with a knife, the tension that was there."

The main dispute is over how ballots will be counted. At its meeting prior to the conference, the national executive, which included representatives of the Youth League, agreed that votes would be scanned and counted electronically. The Youth League and some provinces have since demanded manual counting.

But some analysts say the real dispute was over other issues. First, the Youth League and some branches wanted Lekota removed as conference chairman because they see him as an opponent of Jacob Zuma, whom they support. To avoid further disruptions a steering committee that includes representatives of the provinces and the Youth and Women's Leagues has been appointed to oversee proceedings.

The Youth League and some provincial representatives also wanted to demonstrate to delegates that they could successfully challenge party leaders seen to be pro-President Thabo Mbeki. One party delegate went further, saying privately it was blatant intimidation.

In addition to appointing the steering committee, party leaders have also agreed that votes for the six top posts will be counted manually. But ANC Spokesman Smuts Ngonyama told reporters that the issue of vote tabulation for the remaining seats on the 60-plus national executive committee is still causing problems.

"So as I have said the steering committee will be meeting again to revisit this issue with a view of reaching a compromise with the conference in order to ensure that we can be able to be as swift and speedy as it can be, so that when the house rises on the 20th, all the elected leadership of the NEC will be announced.

A two-year struggle between Jacob Zuma and Mr. Mbeki for the post of party president has caused deep divisions, prompting Mr. Mbeki to say recently the ANC may collapse unless the divisions are healed.

If Jacob Zuma becomes ANC president, he will be a strong contender to succeed Mr. Mbeki as president of South Africa in 2009. But corruption charges against Zuma that were suspended last year on technical grounds, continue to hang over his head, following his recent failure to have search warrants nullified in an appeals court.