The African National Congress has set out on what could be months of crisis management as clear breaches over Jacob Zuma this week of a "truce" in the alliance seem to have left it in tatters.
Insiders acknowledged the breakdown of efforts to present a united front for the deeply divided alliance, but officially attempts are being made to play down the embarrassing events around Zuma's court appearance on corruption charges.
Although both the ANC and the cabinet condemned the breaches in the September 9 compromise agreement between alliance partners, the events were mostly put down to the work of a small group of defiant Zuma supporters.
But observers are adamant that it represents a large crack in the unity façade and saw Zuma's conduct as a flagrant breach of the "cease-fire", and possibly a form of brinkmanship to attain a pardon deal.
With nine months still to go before the trial of the former deputy president starts, analysts believe that the ruling party has no alternative but to keep a now tattered truce in place.
Commentator Professor Adam Habib said the truce would be "very difficult" to keep in place over the coming months, and would unravel further once the trial starts in mid-2006, just over a year before the election of the next ANC president is due.
"You will see, in the next couple of days, a campaign by the ANC's top leadership of papering over the cracks for the ANC there is not much of a solution except to keep the agreement in place, unless decide to have open warfare," he said.
Alliance insiders fear that the set-backs could be the result of a breakdown or insufficient progress in the talks between President Thabo Mbeki and Zuma, aimed at a compromise agreement to keep the peace.
Others were holding on to vague rumours of a political deal in the making to allow the charges against Zuma to be dropped in return for his withdrawal from the ANC presidency race.
Habib said that, even if there was a deal to drop the charges, Zuma and his supporters were clearly "not in the market for a presidential pardon, but absolution".
Mbeki was once again humiliated publicly when Zuma supporters burned T-shirts bearing the president's picture during Zuma's court appearance on corruption charges in the Durban magistrate's court this week.
Zuma himself made remarks that observers believe were in clear violation of the September truce agreement between ANC alliance partners in lieu of a formal proposal from the two men.
Zuma, who is still the ANC's deputy president, compared his impending trial with his experiences under apartheid, interpreted as questioning the court's legitimacy.
He told angry supporters in isiZulu that he would reveal all after the court case, and thus clearly showed his opposition to Mbeki's proposal for an inquiry into alleged conspiracies against him.
The proposal for an inquiry has already been rejected by alliance partners Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, who have thrown their weight behind Zuma and want the charges dropped and his reinstatement as deputy president of the country.
Despite the compromise agreement, it appeared this week that the allies were still insisting on their bottom-line demands.
Zwelinzima Vavi, the Cosatu general secretary, blamed the breaches at the court on a lack of direction from the ANC's national executive committee (NEC), which is set to report back on the deliberations of Mbeki and Zuma.
"Ideally the situation should have been that there a deal before the court hearings," Vavi said.
"We need to get a sense from the two leaders of where things are. But in fact there is not a deal and so there is no direction and you could sense the deep anger and frustration ."
It is understood that alliance partners may ask for a progress meeting on the Zuma-Mbeki talks.
"I would have liked to have seen the alliance and NEC analysing this whole matter, as it will be very difficult from now on. I would like a progress report," Vavi said.
The fact that the case was continuing in the absence of a deal was perceived as "political manipulation" by those asked to act with restraint, which "could become dangerous", he said.
Officially, Smuts Ngonyama, the ANC spokesperson, said Zuma and Mbeki were "meeting continuously to finalise their report ".
He said a special NEC meeting to receive the report would be convened "in due course", but that the report and this week's developments were not on the agenda of tomorrow's national working committee.
The next meeting of the NEC is scheduled for next month, around the same time that Zuma is expected to be formally charged.
Professor Amanda Gouws, a political analyst at Stellenbosch University, said Zuma was acting as though he was holding a trump card, although he may be de-legitimising his own trial, which is key to regaining his credibility.
Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst, said Zuma's breach of the truce "showed clearly that he was not giving up on the presidency" and was keeping the conspiracy theory alive to this end.
"He seems to be going for broke," Matshiqi said.