African National Congress (ANC) officials huddled behind closed doors yesterday to try to resolve an unusually public and bitter contest over who will take over leadership of the party -- and possibly the country.
South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to lose the party leadership to Jacob Zuma, the ANC deputy president. Their rivalry has seen delegates to the party conference booing, singing partisan songs and challenging attempts by the old guard to keep the process decorous.
During the decades when it was an underground movement fighting apartheid, the ANC prided itself on presenting a unified front. That makes what elsewhere might seem the typical trappings of democracy seem shocking.
"The organization is going through deep strain," ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama told reporters. "We have never had contestation on this level because people have to choose between two leaders who are very popular with the people."
The ANC leadership post hadn't been publicly contested in 55 years.
As the conference opened on Sunday, delegates loyal to Zuma booed leaders seen as Mbeki allies, carried pictures of Zuma despite a ban on partisan displays, and called for national chairman Mosiuoa Lekota's removal. Zuma supporters broke into the anti-apartheid song Bring Me My Machine Gun, which has become Zuma's anthem, as soon as Mbeki had finished an address to the conference on Sunday.
Speaking at a press conference, Jeff Radebe, a member of Mbeki's Cabinet and of the party's national executive committee, acknowledged Sunday's atmosphere was not what "we are used to in the ANC."
He said delegates had been made to hand over placards of candidates and that proceedings were expected to go more smoothly yesterday. Voting during closed sessions was expected to begin later yesterday with results expected today or tomorrow.
"The mood was very robust but not as emotional as yesterday," Radebe said.
Political analyst Adam Habib said he had never seen such a divided ANC, but added: "This rough and tumble has a level of democracy to it."
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