Zuma is tipped to win despite corruption and fraud allegations [AFP]

Thousands of supporters of the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's ruling party, have gathered for a conference set to decide whether Thabo Mbeki, the president, will continue to head the party.

Supporters of Mbeki, who is seeking a third term as ANC president, and those backing his challenger, Jacob Zuma, the current deputy president, sang and chanted on Saturday as they lined up to register for the five-day conference that begins on Sunday.
   
If Zuma wins, he will almost certainly become the country's next president in 2009 due to the party's electoral dominance.

Mbeki is barred by the country's constitution from seeking a third term as president, but if he were to remain party leader, he would influence the deciion-making process leading to an ANC presidential candidate.
  
At least 4,000 delegates, who will cast ballots for the presidency and other top leadership positions, have arrived in the town of Polokwane, about 350km north of Johannesburg, the capital.

'Umshini Wami'

Delegates backing Mbeki and Zuma, tried to outdo each other in shows of support, disrupting accreditation proceedings for the conference.
  

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Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma

Despite a party ban on partisan shirts, Zuma's supporters wore vests depicting his image and slogans such as "fit to govern" and "innocent until proven guilty" referring to fraud and corruption charges he is currently facing.
  
Zuma has won the backing of the country's main trade union federation and the South African Communist Party (SACP) in his campaign for the party's top job.
  
He also has the support of five of the party's nine provincial  bodies, with the other four behind Mbeki.

Zuma's supporters broke out in a loud rendition of "Umshini Wami" (Bring me my machine gun), his trademark liberation-era song, which the deputy leader sings at public appearances.

Mbeki, who has been under fire for what critics say is an increasingly aloof and autocratic leadership style, opens the conference on Sunday morning.

Fraught relations

The relationship between the two men is fraught and has led to a split in the party.

Zuma was chosen by Mbeki as deputy president in 1999, but was fired by his party leader after Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of fraud and bribery in June 2005.

"We must take this thing away from personalities - the masses of our people are not in the least interested in who dances best," Mbeki said.

Zuma is a controversial figure. He was acquitted of rape last year, in addition to the fraud and corruption charges looming over him.

Documents containing new evidence against  Zuma, in a corruption case were filed by legal authorities on Saturday.

An affidavit was filed by South Africa's directorate of special operations.

It contains what it calls substantial new evidence that Zuma had received larger payments in a corruption case than originally thought.

"The extent and gravity of the charges has grown...," said the affidavit, which was a response to an appeal by Zuma.

"The payments based on the old and the new evidence are therefore more than three times greater than those based on the old evidence alone."

Any charging of Zuma could lead to his jailing before being sworn in as ANC president.

Zuma said that he would not step down as ANC president unless he is found guilty in court

Despite this, Zuma remains popular as a so-called defender of the poor, contrasting to what some see as the intellectual Mbeki.

Policy consistency

There are fears that Zuma could tilt the government sharply to the left.

However, Adam Habib, a political analyst at the University of Johannesburg, says that many of the cited differences between a Zuma and Mbeki leadership may not materialise.

He said: "I don't think there would be a fundamental change of policy, if either were elected."

"South Africa's macro-economic policy has already changed over the last three or four years. We no longer talk about privatisation. We have a state-led industrialisation drive. We have a huge number of people on social support grants."

"What we are likely to see is changes in policy that are in line with what has been happening over the last three or four years."

Were Zuma to win, Habib sees Mbeki as having to step down and ask the national legislature to choose a president from their own ranks or call early presidential elections.

If Mbeki wins, Habib says that power is likely to continue to be centralised but it will be contested more vigorously, as has happened recently with increasing opposition to Mbeki's consolidation of power in his national administration.

Mbeki has been criticised for displaying an 'autocratic' leadership style [AFP]

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies