JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa's governing African National Congress political party will return to where it was first formed to fight apartheid a century ago to pick its next leader, at a time some believe the movement is struggling to regain its moral high ground.
Some 4,000 delegates will gather at its Mangaung conference, being held in the city also known as Bloemfontein, to choose whether President Jacob Zuma or his quiet, unionist deputy should helm the party. Whoever is picked will likely be in line to be the next president of this nation of 50 million people, leading Africa's top economy into an uncertain future where all now have a right to vote, but don't have access to the country's wealth.
The run-up to the conference has seen disrupted provincial meetings, threats and shootings of local ANC officials, as corruption allegations trail from the smallest local government to Zuma at the top. That has many wondering whether the ANC still remains the party of reconciliation and racial fellowship that icon Nelson Mandela and others envisioned.
"The ANC ... has become an unfamiliar, predatory beast that appears intent on devouring its leaders in an orgy of greed, corruption and cronyism," a front-page editorial published Friday by South Africa's The Times newspaper warned. "It does not have to be like this."
Becoming leader of the ANC means a nearly automatic ticket to becoming the president in post-apartheid South Africa. Opposition parties don't garner the widespread support given to the ANC. By tradition, the party's president will become the nation's president, if the ANC wins national elections in 2014, and its deputy president will serve in the same national office.
Zuma, 70, remains the favorite heading into the conference after winning the nominations in most provincial ANC polls. He has wide support among Zulus, South Africa's largest ethnic group, as well as from a loyal cadre of government and party officials.
But many in the public have grown disenchanted with Zuma, who former President Thabo Mbeki fired as deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in the corruption trial of close friend and financial adviser Schabir Shaik over a 1999 arms deal. Newspapers have written numerous articles recently about the millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made to Zuma's private homestead. Zuma has also faced accusations, by the media, of being unable to manage his personal finances and relying on friends and colleagues to bail him out, including, allegedly, Mandela himself.
Zuma has faced criticism over his sexual activity. He was put on trial for raping a family friend, and acquitted, in 2006. He also outraged AIDS activists by testifying that he had unprotected, consensual sex with the HIV-positive woman and then took a shower in the belief that it would protect him from AIDS. In the time since, however, Zuma has publicized his own HIV test results and urged the nation to practice safe sex.
Zuma has been married six times — he currently has four wives, as his Zulu culture allows. He has 21 children, and acknowledged in 2010 that he fathered a child that year with a woman who was not among his wives.
He and the ANC have also been criticized for strikes that overtook the nation, particularly in the mining sector, and the handling of violence at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana that saw more than 46 people killed and sparked violence and labor unrest at other mines.
His main competition in the ANC now is a man who largely acted for weeks as though he didn't want to accept the challenge: Kgalema Motlanthe, 63, the nation's vice president and a former union leader. Several provinces and the ANC's youth arm nominated Motlanthe, who only Thursday confirmed through his spokesman he had accepted his candidacy.
Motlanthe served as a caretaker president for South Africa from September 2008 to May 2009, after Zuma ousted Mbeki as leader of the ANC in tight party election. Motlanthe also offers what appears to be the opposite of Zuma's leadership — a quiet, pensive and technocratic approach that differs from Zuma's crowd-pleasing comments and dancing.
While the ANC largely doesn't have a history of candidates publicly campaigning, some analysts say Motlanthe held back on accepting the nomination because he was not sure of adequate support from rank-and-file party members to unseat Zuma.
No matter the outcome, some have warned the party already has slipped away from the magnanimous style of leadership displayed by leaders like Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before being released and guiding the ANC to victory in the nation's first democratic elections. As 94-year-old Mandela has been hospitalized for over a week and fighting a lung infection, his name likely will be repeatedly mentioned at the party's conference as its standard bearer.
But one critic warns that the mention of Mandela is more a ploy for the ruling party than a call back to its values.
"The tragedy for Mandela is that his legacy will be hijacked by every possible political faction in the country," said Frans Cronje, the deputy chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations. "
For now, the Mangaung conference is scheduled to begin Sunday, with an address by Zuma about the country's political landscape today in South Africa. Delegates will vote for leaders by a secret ballot, without their mobile phones after concerns arose over people being told to photograph their ballots to prove who they vote for, ANC organizers have said. If it becomes a race with multiple candidates and no one gets more than 50 percent of the ballots cast, there will be a run-off with the top two candidates, they said.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .