Less than six months before South Africa's third presidential election, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is embroiled in an internal bloodletting it seems powerless to stop.
Already the volley of charges and counter-charges has hurt the reputations of the deputy president and the national prosecutor. With the opening of what appears likely to become a lengthy inquiry into some of the allegations, President Thabo Mbeki may be hurt politically as well.
For the last week, the South African public has focused on the juiciest aspect of the affair: the revelation that a white human rights lawyer who seemed to be a comrade-in-arms in the African National Congress' struggle against apartheid during the 1980s was in fact a spy for the apartheid government.
The lawyer, Vanessa Brereton, went public a week ago on South African TV with a tearful confession that she had betrayed black South Africans' struggle for freedom because she was in love with a senior officer in the apartheid government's security police.
As intelligence agent RS542, she said, she gave her lover and handler information about three anti-apartheid activists, one of whom was later arrested and imprisoned without trial.
Now living in England, Brereton said that she apologized to those she betrayed and that she did not expect forgiveness.
But Brereton's role as an apartheid spy is but a sidelight in a poisonous battle for power between Mbeki's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, and the national prosecutor, Bulelani Ngcuka.
Both men are senior members of the ANC, which gained more than 65 percent of the vote in the 1999 presidential elections.
Ngcuka said openly in August that he suspected, but could not prove, that Zuma had benefited illegally from under-the-table dealings in a multibillion-dollar arms deal. Zuma's supporters struck back in September by accusing Ngcuka of acting as a spy -- code-named RS542 -- for the apartheid government in the last days of white rule here.
That charge led Brereton to come forward because, she said, she did not want Ngcuka to suffer for her misdeeds. But Zuma's supporters have refused to back down, saying they never claimed to know the right code name for Ngcuka.
Nor has the rivalry halted. Zuma has demanded a new inquiry into Ngcuka's conduct of the investigation into his role in the arms deal.
In response, Ngcuka said on Saturday that evidence against the deputy president would come out at an upcoming fraud trial of an associate of Zuma's who was charged with fraud in the arms deal.
The battle has consumed the party since at least August. Mbeki's inability so far to resolve it has emboldened his detractors, who say he pays too much attention to his image as a statesman and not enough to problems at home. Mbeki reacted to the accusations against Ngcuka in early September by ordering a national commission of inquiry headed by a retired judge, Joos Hefer, to sort out the truth of the matter.
That inquiry has bogged down amid reluctance by South Africa's intelligence agencies to fish through their apartheid files.
"So far, the commission is getting nowhere," said Shadrack Gutto, director for the Center of African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa. Hefer is faced with a near-impossible task, he said, and "would do the nation some honor by throwing in the towel."