As any member of the ruling African National Congress will tell you, officially you don't run for President of South Africa; the party asks you to serve. That's why there's so much attention this week on the ANC's provincial branches, which are set to nominate their choices for party president. The final vote takes place at the party's national party conference in December, and so strong is the ANC's electoral support that whoever wins the leadership of the organization once headed by Nelson Mandela is deemed a shoe-in for South Africa's presidency.
The fact that so many of the vital decisions shaping South Africa's future are made first within the ranks of the ruling party has prompted the country's small opposition parties to accuse the ANC of remaining true to the Stalinist traditions of its days as a guerrilla movement. But if the run-up to December's vote is anything to go by, the process of choosing South Africa's next President is set to one of the loudest and most open elections in African history. The race to succeed President Thabo Mbeki when his second term ends in 2009 has divided the ANC: One camp is led by Mbeki himself, who is constitutionally barred from a third term but is still considering whether to find a way to run again, or to throw his weight behind a designated successor. Mbeki certainly hopes to flout the ambitions of his estranged former deputy Jacob Zuma. Mbeki sacked the populist Zuma following a series of corruption allegations and a rape charge against the deputy president, although he remains the deputy leader of the ANC.
According to ANC custom, the leadership contest would occur behind closed doors, with the leadership maintaining a united front in public. This time, it's anything but. The two rivals and their supporters have been tearing into each other via the newspapers albeit via anonymous leaks for years. And then there were the two 2005 court cases that gave Mbeki cause to fire a man who had become increasingly vocal in his criticism, from the left, of the direction of the ANC government. The corruption charges relating to an arms contract were later withdrawn, and he was cleared of the rape charge but not before a series of embarrassing revelations about some of his attitudes on women and sex. Zuma claims both trials were instigated by his enemies read Mbeki and, talking to TIME in January, a Zuma adviser warned, "Don't forget Jacob is the former head of the ANC's intelligence. He's got dirt on all these guys, and he's not afraid to use it."
Sure enough, lately it has been Mbeki's turn to feel the heat. Some of it, to be fair, has been his own doing: In August, he caused outrage by sacking the well-respected Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. She had taken steps to restore some credibility to South Africa's HIV/AIDS program, which had suffered under her boss, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, best known for her recommendation of garlic and beetroot as AIDS treatments. And Mbeki himself has expressed skepticism that HIV causes AIDS. But Madlala-Routledge's true crime, say close observers, was lack of loyalty to Tshabalala-Msimang, a key Mbeki ally. Tshabalala-Msimang hardly helped her patron's case when, in September, she went to court to try to stop the Sunday Times from publishing copies of her medical records, along with allegations of excessive drinking and abusive behavior when she was in the hospital for a shoulder operation.
Last week, however, Mbeki's troubles escalated into what the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a key ANC ally that has officially endorsed Zuma, calls a "major constitutional crisis." On Sept. 23, Mbeki suspended the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Vusi Pikoli, who also oversees an elite investigative unit known as "the Scorpions." This time, Mbeki was happy to cite an "irretrievable breakdown" of relations between Pikoli and his boss, the justice minister. The real reason for the firing, say Mbeki's opponents, was Pikoli's delay in reinstating the corruption charges against Zuma and his issue, on Sept. 10, of an arrest warrant for Jackie Selebi, the country's top policeman and the current head of Interpol. Selebi, an ANC heavyweight and another key Mbeki ally, has long been under fire for failing to tackle South Africa's raging violent crime. But there was even more heat over his friendship with Glen Agliotti, a man suspected by South African police of being a crime boss, and who was arrested by the Scorpions and charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the 2005 killing of mining magnate Brett Kebble. (Agliotti's lawyers told a bail hearing that Kebble's death was an "assisted suicide.")
Last Friday, the NPA confirmed it had issued warrants for Selebi's arrest and a search of his property, though it did not say on what charges and added the warrants would not be executed by the NPA's new acting director, pending his review of the case. "The question can only be asked as to what kind of hold the Commissioner [Selebi] has over the President, for the President to protect him at the cost of the independence and integrity of our democratic institutions," wrote Sandra Botha, parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance in the party's weekly newsletter on Friday.
The DA allegation that South Africa's state organs are being used as battlegrounds for the ANC's internal feuds seem fair. But they may no longer have grounds to complain that the process in which the ANC will choose the next President of South Africa is less than transparent.