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Party faithful head for Polokwane

Published Dec 14, 2007

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- See our special feature on Polokwane 2007.

Like pilgrims, the party faithful were on Friday making their way to Polokwane for the African National Congress' much-awaited national conference.

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But unlike the devout Zionists who gather yearly at Moria, about 30km to the east of the Lowveld town, they are deeply divided.

And though both current party president Thabo Mbeki and his deputy Jacob Zuma have been hailed as the troubled party's messiah, the issue is going to be decided by a democratic vote, rather than divine intervention.

A total of 4 075 voting delegates, plus hundreds of other non-voting delegates, observers, and a massive media contingent, will spend Saturday registering for the conference, being held at the University of Limpopo.

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It opens on Sunday morning with a lengthy political report by Mbeki, and closes on Thursday with an address by the person delegates have decided will lead the party for the next five years.

Based on the tally of voting at branch level, that could be Zuma, though Mbeki lobbyists are saying they believe they can swing a last-minute turnaround.

And though there was talk of a compromise candidate, that seems increasingly unlikely, particularly after business magnate Tokyo Sexwale, who mounted the strongest challenge to Zuma and Mbeki, this week threw in his lot with the Zuma camp.

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Sexwale is now standing for national chairman on the Zuma camp's list for the top six positions on the party executive.

A call by party stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who claimed to be wearing the mantle of former president Nelson Mandela, for a different type of "compromise" was firmly rejected by the Zuma camp.

She proposed that Mbeki and Zuma retain their positions until the 2009 general election, when Zuma would take over as party leader and president of the country.

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Madikizela-Mandela met Zuma at his Johannesburg home on Friday afternoon.

They agreed to let the democratic process take its course at the Polokwane conference, ANC Youth League spokesperson Zizi Kodwa told reporters afterwards.

Madikizela-Mandela and Mbeki had been communicating by telephone, ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama told Sapa later in the afternoon.

"I don't know what they have been talking about or how many times Winnie has called him... but I do know they are communicating over the telephone," he said.

"I think the phone calls may culminate in a meeting but I'm not too sure."

Initial reports from aides had the two meeting at Luthuli House in Johannesburg.

Zuma also has the backing of the ANC Women's League, which caused a stir by choosing him, rather than a woman, as its preferred candidate.

Voting for the top positions could start late on Sunday night, when the ANC's electoral commission will formally announce the top six candidates, who have already been nominated by ANC provinces and leagues, and call for any nominations from the floor.

The result of the contest for the presidency could be known as early as Monday.

Even if the 65-year-old Zuma takes the post, he faces another hurdle: the National Prosecuting Authority, which has yet to take a decision on whether to re-charge him with corruption.

That will likely come early next year.

However, he has already started to position himself for the presidency, both of the party and the country.

Acutely aware of Mbeki's economic track record, including growth last year of 5,4 percent, the highest in over two decades, Zuma visited London and the United States to soothe jittery investors.

The jitters were not allayed by a statement by a key Zuma adviser that Finance Minister Trevor Manuel would be retained in a Zuma Cabinet only "in some capacity", and then only if he had "the flexibility of mind".

Zuma's backers include the Congress of SA Trade Unions and the SA Communist Party, who are expected to push for a more leftist course as a reward for their support.

But ultimately, the decision on who will lead the ANC and the country is not in the hands of factions, backers, lobbyists, or the market: it is in the hands of the 4 075 Polokwane delegates.

The rest of the country can only watch and wait. - Sapa

- See our special feature on Polokwane 2007.

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