Confronting the worst rift in its history, South Africa's ruling ANC party begins voting today in a leadership ballot that is expected to end with President Thabo Mbeki being booted out and the current number two Jacob Zuma elected head of the party and almost assured of becoming the country's next president.
The pair may have taken to the stage in Polokwane together yesterday but there was certainly no united front, with the pair barely speaking to each other and Zuma supporters repeatedly jeering and heckling Mr Mbeki .
The power struggle for the leadership of the ANC, which has led Africa's economic and political powerhouse since the end of apartheid in 1994, has become so bitter that the revered Nelson Mandela was forced to weigh in and press home the concerns of party veterans.
"Of course it saddens us to see and hear of the nature of the differences currently in the organisation," the 89-year-old, who did not attend the conference because of ill health, said in a message delivered to party delegates yesterday.
The former South African president, who served just one term before handing over the reins to Mr Mbeki had hitherto refrained from commenting on the party's internal divisions but there had been increasingly vocal calls for him to intervene and try to prevent the rift from completely derailing the party.
And he was not the only South African moral heavyweight to speak up. Just ahead of the conference Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, urged the ANC not to elect Zuma, pleading with delegates to "not choose someone of whom most of us would be ashamed".
Mr Zuma has led a colourful and controversial political life, seeing his kudos as an anti-apartheid fighter who was imprisoned on Robben Island along with Mr Mandela evaporate into a string of scandals. The most sensational was a rape trial last year, in which he was ultimately acquitted but not before he had admitted knowingly having unprotected sex with his HIV-positive accuser and describing how he had showered afterwards to cut the risk of contracting the infection.
ANC delegates were supposed to start voting for their next party leader in a secret ballot last night but it was pushed back until today. Although the constitution prevents Mr Mbeki from standing in another presidential election, by winning a third consecutive term as ANC leader, he can maintain a strong influence over who ends up as the party's candidate for 2009 polls.
Yesterday, in a three-hour address that was packed with statistics and sent some of the 4,000 delegates to sleep, Mr Mbeki defended his record as president, highlighting how he had promoted economic growth and presided over the emergence of a black middle class. But he also acknowledged failures including the divisions ravaging his party.
"Completely unacceptable tendencies have emerged which threaten the very survival of the ANC," he said.
He criticised corruption in members of the party whom he said were possessed by greed, a veiled attack on Mr Zuma who faces corruption charges involving alleged kickbacks in a multi-billion arms tender after prosecutors submitted fresh evidence.
Such comments provoked a torrent of angry jeers and boos from Mr Zuma's supporters, who carried pictures of the Zulu politician high above the heads and sang the anti-apartheid song "Bring me my machine gun" which has fast become his anthem.
President Thabo Mbeki
Elected in 1999, Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela as South Africa's second black president. He fought against apartheid from an early age and his father, Govan Mbeki, was a member of the South African Communist Party. Thabo has presided over an economic boom, and his pro-business policies have made South Africa the continent's richest country. Yet it is plagued by poverty and crime, reminders of what he fought against. Mr Mbeki has been criticised for questioning the link between HIV and Aids, stifling dissent and failing to condemn Mugabe's regime.
An ethnic Zulu, Mr Zuma is seen as a man of the people and more left-leaning than Mr Mbeki. He shook off a torrent of controversy when he was deputy president in 2005 after allegations of corruption and rape. He could still face charges over a multimillion-dollar arms deal. Many observers were stunned when Mr Zuma admitted during a rape trial that he had unprotected sex with his HIV-positive accuser and said he showered to cut the risk of contracting HIV. He was later acquitted. He is seen as a beacon of light by poor South Africans, and has solid anti-apartheid credentials after serving 10 years for conspiring against white rule.Reuse content