Many of South Africa's newspapers marked the countdown to the ANC's “watershed” Mangaung conference by moving their editorials to their front pages on Friday.

“Mangaung delegates may not appreciate it, but the party now faces a credibility crisis,” Business Day commented.

“The issue is not really whether the ANC stands to lose the next election. What it does stand to lose is the sense of electoral invulnerability,” it said, on a page featuring a picture of ANC president Jacob Zuma delivering a speech in Bloemfontein the previous day.

There would probably be a repeat of issues that had “travelled a well-worn path”.

The biggest danger was an “echo chamber” of the party's own making and it not seeing that the ground has been shifting under them, economically and socially.

The Star's “High Noon” headline showed pictures of party president Jacob Zuma and deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, who are both nominees for party president.

In a news report drawing on events in the run-up to the conference, with input from analysts, the writers said “...within 48 hours, President Jacob Zuma will kickstart a conference where he is expected to be re-elected Ä or be forced to step down”.

It concluded with: “The weekend marks the end of the bloody road to Mangaung. It is, for many, high noon.”

The Sowetan said the party should keep in mind all comments “negative and positive” and “synthesise” what the public thinks and what its members believe in, to ensure it doesn't become isolated from the public it serves.

In best seller The Daily Sun, the first mention of the conference was on page five in a story about 100 youths walking from Thokoza in Gauteng to the conference, where they planned to raise their concerns about the high rate of unemployment to the ANC leadership. If they were not heard, they would go into exile in Angola.

An article on page eight titled “Motlanthe's decision makes life interesting”, said Motlanthe had a “real chance of stealing the conference from Zuma and though his chances of winning are slim, they are real”.

The Citizen led with e-tolls, but inside said it did not think Motlanthe was an ideal candidate or even the best the ANC had to offer.

“But at least he is more worthy than Zuma, who has failed to provide moral or visionary leadership”.

Afrikaans language newspaper Beeld said it was clear Zuma hadn't met expectations as the great change-maker in the five years since he was elected at the last party conference in Polokwane, where his predecessor Thabo Mbeki was removed for not listening and for not responding to criticism.

It said Zuma sticks to reading prepared speeches and shies away from parliamentary questions.

It said despondency was growing because Zuma “shows no leadership” during crisis times.

The Times said the “greatest gift” the party could offer during a “tumultuous time in modern history” was to “reset its moral compass”.

The New Age said with national and provincial elections 18

months away, “fixing the perception that the organisation is at war with itself is of utmost importance”.

“Feel it. The day of reckoning is here” headlined the Mail & Guardian comment.

It said the “entire state machinery” including the security establishment and the public broadcaster had been deployed in a “complex” situation.

In the end, delegates have to decide whether the ANC in 2012 is in a better position than in 2007, and the publication believes it is not.

“Five years of Zuma, five years of indecision, scandal and government in the interests of one man, has been hard on the country and on his party.”

If Zuma stays, “we may be witnessing the last elective conference of the ANC as a party of natural legitimacy and 60

percent plus majorities” and, it continued, “the first inklings of a new beginning”. - Sapa