Nominations and voting for the presidency of the African National Congress began last night. The identity of the winner may be known later today but analysts fear the rift between the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, and his nemesis, Jacob Zuma, is likely to continue whoever wins.
About 4,000 ANC delegates at the five-day congress in Polokwane will witness the first leadership contest in 58 years in South Africa's ruling party. After suffering the humiliation of being booed and jeered as he addressed delegates on Sunday, Mr Mbeki's supporters tried to stage a fightback yesterday, holding an unprecedented lunchtime rally to mobilise support for their man. But the strategy seemed to backfire: Mr Zuma's supporters staged a rally which attracted almost twice the number of delegates.
A row over voting methods had delayed the leadership ballot, which was originally planned for Sunday night. Mr Zuma's supporters rejected the use of any electronic voting system, saying it could be used to rig the poll in favour of Mr Mbeki. Mr Zuma's camp won the day after it was agreed that manual voting and counting would be used.
Meanwhile, both camps traded accusations of bringing fraudulently accredited delegates. Dozens of Zuma supporters were disqualified from voting and Smuts Ngonyama, a spokesman for the ANC, condemned their behaviour as "foreign" to the values and traditions of the party.
"People are fixated at getting particular results," he added. "Each camp wants to leave no room for error, hence all the concerns about voting methods".
Mr Ngonyama predicted that the ANC would emerge from the election as a party united behind its new leader. However, few South Africans believe him.
Deep-seated rifts on display at this conference are likely to remain, whoever wins, with far-reaching implications for South Africa and the African continent.
Adam Habib, the deputy-vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, said the best way to avoid further acrimony within the party was for Mr Mbeki to stand down as President of South Africa if he loses his ANC battle with Mr Zuma but that too is extremely unlikely. Mr Mbeki's term as head of state expires in 2009 but many fear Mr Zuma's election will create two centres of power and render the country ungovernable. "If South Africa sneezes, the entire southern African region will not only catch a cold, but a heavy bout of it," said one analyst.
Most delegates heap the blame for the chaos within the ANC on Mr Mbeki's desire to cling to power. They say he should emulate his predecessor Nelson Mandela and step aside. "What message is Mbeki sending to Robert Mugabe, for instance? That it is acceptable to be a life president even at the expense of your people," said one Zuma supporter.
Others see resistance to Mr Mbeki as a good sign for democratic development. "If he stands and is humiliated out of power, then it will send a clear message to other Africans that autocratic incumbents can be successfully challenged," said an analyst, Wilfred Khumalo.