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Giant portraits of former African National Congress (ANC) presidents, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, right, overlook Bloemfontein, South Africa, Thursday, Dec 13, 2012. (John Dube/The Associated Press)
Giant portraits of former African National Congress (ANC) presidents, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, right, overlook Bloemfontein, South Africa, Thursday, Dec 13, 2012. (John Dube/The Associated Press)

Zuma is all but assured of re-election, but the big question for South Africa is who will succeed him Add to ...

With its revered former leader in frail health, South Africa’s ruling party is gathering this weekend in an attempt to settle a power struggle and begin choosing a possible successor to President Jacob Zuma.

The continuing illness of Nelson Mandela, entering his eighth day in hospital with a lung infection, is casting a long shadow over the crucial summit of the African National Congress where key leadership battles are supposed to be resolved.

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It’s also drawing an uncomfortable comparison between Mr. Mandela, the beloved 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero, and Mr. Zuma, whose first term has been riddled with controversy over his profligate spending, alleged corruption, dithering decision-making and multiple female partners.

Mr. Zuma is facing huge criticism for a $27-million state-funded “upgrade” to his village home. And a new report this month found that Mr. Zuma was a “kept politician” who received hundreds of payments from a range of private benefactors – including local businessmen and European arms dealers – before he became president. One financier alone gave him 783 separate payments, the report said.

Despite the uproar over his dubious dealings, Mr. Zuma is expected to win a new mandate at the ANC conference, a five-day event beginning Sunday in Bloemfontein, also known as Mangaung, capital of Free State province. It’s the first ANC elective conference since 2007, when Mr. Zuma stunned the country by toppling Mr. Mandela’s chosen successor, Thabo Mbeki.

With the victory of Mr. Zuma virtually assured, the real question is whether the party will choose an heir apparent. The deputy presidency could be awarded to a powerful businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa, who would then become the likely successor to Mr. Zuma at the end of his second term, since the ANC’s deputy president traditionally ascends to the top job.

The current deputy president, the shrewd and inscrutable Kgalema Motlanthe, surprised many observers by announcing on Thursday that he will challenge Mr. Zuma for the presidency.

But he is unlikely to win and might still accept a last-ditch “unity” deal to remain as deputy president, avoiding a damaging battle on the convention floor.

Local reports suggest Mr. Zuma has already captured the support of 2,521 ANC delegates – about 270 more than he needs for victory – while Mr. Motlanthe is supported by only 863 delegates. Those numbers could change in the secret balloting at the convention, but probably not enough to make much difference.

Since the ANC is still consistently supported by more than 60 per cent of South African voters, the party conference victory will almost certainly allow Mr. Zuma to win the next national election in 2014, keeping him in power until 2019.

It’s a prospect that fills many with dread. “Can SA endure seven more years of Zuma?” asked a cover headline on a South African business magazine this week.

Mr. Zuma’s re-election as party president could be tainted by widespread allegations of wrongdoing in the process. Meetings to choose delegates and executive members have been marred by reports of corruption and vote-buying, and outbursts of violence and intimidation by gun-toting thugs.

Many of the meetings are already being challenged in the courts. South Africa’s highest court on Friday overturned the results of a provincial meeting in Free State, casting more doubt on the process. There are also allegations that the delegate numbers were manipulated to favour provinces that supported Mr. Zuma.

But with Mr. Zuma likely to keep his grip on the leadership, the focus is shifting to the jousting for deputy president, with Mr. Motlanthe and Mr. Ramaphosa as the two main candidates.

Mr. Motlanthe is backed by some of Mr. Zuma’s biggest enemies, including the ANC Youth League, which is campaigning for radical economic reforms, including the nationalization of the mining industry.

Mr. Ramaphosa, meanwhile, is a former trade-union leader and top ANC official who was once seen as Mr. Mandela’s heir. Nudged aside by Mr. Mbeki in the mid-1990s, he turned to mining and other businesses. He built up a massive $275-million fortune, making him one of South Africa’s richest people.

It’s unclear whether he wants to return to politics. But even if he does, he has a new burden: He is a major shareholder in the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana, where police killed 34 protesters in August. E-mails released at an inquiry showed he had pushed for police action at Marikana, just shortly before the massacre.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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