The plot to overthrow President Thabo Mbeki is a smokescreen for the fact that the African National Congres's top leadership wants to prevent deputy president Jacob Zuma from running for office again.

It is emerging in ANC circles that it is Zuma's position, and not Mbeki's, that is at stake.

"It is all political manoeuvring" ahead of provincial conferences in July, said an ANC MP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The accusations by Steve Tshwete, safety and security minister, that former ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa, the former premiers of Gauteng and Mpumalanga respectively, were "plotting" to overthrow Mbeki, were seen as a smokescreen to divert attention from the real issue - getting rid of Zuma.

Zuma's fate is being linked to the three plot accused because the principal source of the claims being made against the three is apparently James Nkambule, a former ANC Youth League leader in Mpumalanga.

According to Nkambule, Phosa, in particular, and the two others are close Zuma allies.

Criticism from unexpected quarters - Cosatu, the SACP and Nelson Mandela - over Tshwete's "irresponsible" allegations, were now being interpreted as "a show of support for Jacob Zuma.

Everyone is aware that the said comrades are not the real threat. Zuma is," said the MP.

He said the "fear is that the top leadership is trying to stop Zuma from running for the deputy presidency again. It is all political manoeuvring."

The MP said Zuma "is being forced out for someone closer to the president.

"Unless the unthinkable happens and the president is removed, Zuma has little chance of assuming the presidency."

Phosa, one of the alleged plotters, said: "I can't see anybody trying to challenge President Mbeki now. What for?"

Phosa reiterated his earlier position that he, Sexwale and Ramaphosa had "never met, had telephone conversations or written letters to each other in the last two years and eight months to plot anything".

Joel Netshitenzhe, head of the government communication service and the man media reports have suggested was interested in Zuma's job, said on Saturday that such talk "is just so unfortunate. I don't know where people get that. As I stated in 1997, I have no ambitions for political office. I am satisfied in my job as a civil servant."

Netshitenzhe, Phosa and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were, in 1997, initially pitted against Zuma for the position of deputy president.

The three finally pulled out when the campaign for the job became vicious, especially against Phosa.

Zuma took the job without challenge. But from then on there were suggestions that Mbeki was not comfortable with him as deputy president. In 1999, rumours started circulating that Zuma got the job because Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the president of the Inkatha Freedom Party and home affairs minister, declined it.

When Zuma was "forced" to declare his allegiance to the president three weeks ago, suspicions were confirmed that he was in trouble.

The MP said it was now alleged that Zuma was carrying out his own campaign in the provinces to ensure that "he gains power in provincial executive committees.

In this way, he will be assured of the staying vote for the deputy presidency, which effectively puts him in line for the presidency in future."

In KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma's home base, he is alleged to be campaigning to remove the provincial chairperson, Sbu Ndebele, and his team.

Ndebele is known as an Mbeki supporter. Zuma's "chosen" candidate is Zweli Mkhize, the current deputy chairperson and KwaZulu-Natal MEC for health.

Zuma is also said to be banking on troubled provinces like the Free State, Gauteng and the Northern Province and on the re-election, for the third time, of Malusi Gigaba as the president of the ANC Youth League. Some had suggested that Gigaba's team were "fully behind the deputy president. And these 'silent' young lions have teeth," said another ANC leader.