President Thabo Mbeki says the bitter contest to lead South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) could destroy the party that helped end apartheid.
The ANC gathers on 16-20 December to select a new leadership and set policies for the next five years. Mbeki is running for a third term as ANC president against deputy leader Jacob Zuma.
"If division leads to retribution, that's what will destroy the ANC ... Part of our responsibility is to avoid such an outcome," Mbeki told the Mail & Guardian newspaper yesterday.
Zuma looks set to win the ANC leadership battle after taking a strong lead in branch nominations. A victory would virtually assure him of the South African presidency in the 20O9 general election because of the party's electoral dominance.
The ANC race has not been drawn along policy lines but rather has developed into a clash of personalities.
The pair's rivalry stems from Mbeki's 2005 dismissal of Zuma as the country's deputy president after he was tied to a corruption scandal. The case against Zuma collapsed last year on procedural grounds, but prosecutors have hinted they are likely to re-charge the controversial but popular Zulu politician.
Mbeki is a shrewd strategist, more comfortable in small groups than with large crowds. Zuma is charismatic, a big draw among people frustrated with Mbeki's leadership.
"We must take this thing away from personalities - the masses of our people are not in the least interested in who dances best," said Mbeki, who must step down as the country's leader in 2009.
He is believed to want to stay on as ANC leader to retain political influence and help choose a successor.
Nelson Mandela's former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has offered a compromise proposal to ease factionalism under which Mbeki would stay on as ANC leader and then Zuma appointed as the ANC candidate for the country's presidency in 2009.
Zuma's secretary, Nontokozo Luthuli, said Madikizela-Mandela held discussions with Zuma on Friday, but did not elaborate. SABC radio said she was also expected to hold talks with Mbeki. An ANC spokesman could not confirm those talks were scheduled.
Mbeki's centrist policies have pleased the business community which has enjoyed strong economic growth and steady inflows of foreign capital. Critics say he has failed to address widespread social and economic inequalities left by apartheid.
Zuma, an anti-apartheid hero, has been vague on what policies he would pursue. He has vowed not to introduce sweeping changes or dramatically shift the country to the left despite pressure from his labour and communist supporters.
"This is in fact an unnecessary concern," Zuma told BBC television.
If Zuma is re-charged, it raises the prospect the future president could be jailed long before he is sworn in. Zuma said he would step down only if a court proves he is guilty.
"The day, if I am taken to court, and the judge says 'Zuma we find you guilty', as I walk out of court, I will say to the ANC I am stepping down ... even if I could go to appeals and still win the case," he said.
Mbeki has also come under fire. Responding to accusations from the opposition that he does not tolerate dissent, he said ANC members had not pointed out his mistakes.
"I've heard this, and I don't understand it. Do I look as if I've got horns? It's said that I block and inhibit open discussion - that's puzzling to me; it's completely untrue."