Next month, South Africa's African National Congress will hold its national conference to endorse policy decisions taken earlier this year and to elect leaders, including the party president who, since the end of apartheid, has gone on to become the president of the nation. VOA's Delia Robertson looks ahead to the conference.
Perhaps unlike any previous national gathering of the African National Congress, next month's deliberations will distill down to one major issue for delegates: the election of the party's leaders and, particularly, the party president for the next five years.
As analyst Aubrey Matshiqi of the independent Center for Policy Studies explains, becoming president of the ANC can be key in eventually becoming president of South Africa.
"So there is the expectation that the person who is elected president of the ANC in December, if that person is not Thabo Mbeki, who cannot seek re-election as head-of-state, in terms of our constitution, that person is likely to be head-of-state in 2009," said Matshiqi.
The battle lines for the presidential contest this December were already drawn in 2005, when President Thabo Mbeki fired Jacob Zuma from his post as deputy president of South Africa. Zuma's financial adviser, Shabir Shaik, had been convicted on charges of corruption, relating to money paid to Zuma.
At first, the decision seemed to deal a fatal blow to Zuma's presidential aspirations. But if President Mbeki expected his ambitious deputy to quietly fade into political obscurity, he was wrong.
At a meeting of ANC leaders in 2005, Zuma outmaneuvered President Mbeki to retain his post of deputy president of the party. And, although he denies he has presidential ambitions, he has been engaged in a well-organized and well-funded campaign for the top party job and, by extension, the presidency of the country.
There is less clarity on why President Mbeki continues to compete for the party leadership. Some say it is because he is reluctant to give up his grip on power and wishes to remain as king-maker within the party. Others, like Mark Gevisser, the author of the just released biography, Thabo Mbeki, the Dream Deferred, say it is because he does not feel his work to free and redeem his people is done. Gevisser says it is also because President Mbeki does not trust Zuma with the future of South Africa.
"I think he is genuinely, he and the people around him, are genuinely absolutely horrified about what might happen if a Zuma presidency were to take over," he said. "I think they think that, if Jacob Zuma becomes president of South Africa, it will be a dream shattered, never mind deferred."
Complicating Zuma's aspirations is the possibility corruption charges will be reinstated against him. He denies the charges which flow from the 2005 conviction of his former financial advisor. The judge in that case said Zuma intervened to secure business contracts for his advisor and that the only way he could do that was to use his political office. Zuma says the allegations are part of a conspiracy to keep him from higher office, and that the money he got was a gesture between good friends.
The contest between these two individuals has become increasingly bitter and has caused unprecedented divisions in the ANC, so much so that, in recent weeks, some party elders have broken with the tradition of solving problems behind closed doors. Instead, they have publicly entreated the protagonists to step aside and allow others, such as businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, to step forward.
Professor Sipho Seepe of Henley Management College says it is a view fast winning favor among ANC members, who fear an unseemly spectacle at the conference and who are asking what long-term impact it would have on the ANC.
"When they do that, it will come down to the notion that Mbeki's presidency and Zuma's behavior in the past are part of the divisive elements within the top leadership in the ANC," said Seepe. "And, what we are seeing is a very strong indication that another candidate must be sought other than these two."
Zuma, a populist leader, draws much of his support from the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, the ANC's alliance partners.
They oppose Mr. Mbeki's economic policies, which they say have enriched the elite and are not friendly to workers or the poor, a view disputed by some economic analysts. Analyst Seepe notes that, at the ANC's June policy conference, delegates already agreed to strengthen existing welfare elements within in the ruling party's economic framework.
"There is a view around especially the economic policy that it did seem to express what was already happening, more of an interventionist type of government that will intervene on the side and in the interests of the poor; which the government has actually done," he added.
But, as analyst Matshiqi notes, few dispute the deepening links between political power and wealth that Zuma's supporters believe are the result of Mr. Mbeki's economic policies.
"And, what this means is that, unlike in the past, access to political power is no longer an end in itself, but has become the means toward the achievement of personal interests of an economic nature," continued Matshiqi. "And, for me, this is the major complication, this change in the relationship between the ANC and its members on one hand and state power, on the other."
Like Zuma, some of his supporters in the labor movement have also benefited from the financial largesse of powerful business leaders. However, they do not seem to be troubled by the apparent incongruity between these gifts and their opposition to Mr. Mbeki's policies. Analysts say it will be interesting to see which conference delegates seek to fine-tune those policies to prevent such conflicts of interest arising in the future and which seek a major overhaul of the government's economic policies.