South Africa's ruling African National Congress is due to begin its much anticipated national conference Sunday in Polokwane in Limpopo province. VOA'S Delia Robertson reports the gathering will endorse policy decisions taken earlier this year and elect leaders, including the party president.
Foremost in the minds of over 3,000 delegates in Polokwane is the election of the party's leaders, and particularly the party president, for the next five years.
Analyst Aubrey Matshiqi of the independent Center for Policy Studies says that since the end of apartheid, becoming president of the African National Congress has been a reliable stepping stone to 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 reelection as head-of-state in terms of our constitution - that person is likely to be head-of-state in 2009," said Matshiqi.
The battle for the top leadership post has primarily been between two contenders, Jacob Zuma, the former Deputy President of South Africa, and the man who fired him, current President Thabo Mbeki. It has been a bitter contest, particularly in recent months, and has seen Zuma emerge as the front runner in regional, women's and youth conferences.
Zuma denies he has presidential ambitions, insisting he is merely available to serve in any capacity the ANC asks. But for over two years 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. I think they think that if Jacob Zuma becomes president of South Africa it will be a dream shattered, never mind deferred," he said.
Complicating Zuma's aspirations have been lingering charges of corruption. While the case against him was withdrawn on technical grounds last year, there is a strong possibility the charges will be re-instated in the coming months.
Zuma denies the charges, which followed 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 repayable loan between good friends
In addition to electing new party leaders, the conference will also adopt policies that will become the basis of government policy if the ANC wins the next general election in 2009.