Jacob Zuma is currently the frontrunner after branch nominations [EPA]

Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, has said that the acrimonious contest to lead his ruling African National Congress could destroy the party.

The warning comes two days before the ANC gathers to select a new leader and formulate policies for the next five years.

Mbeki, who has been president since 1999, is seeking a third term as the party's president against the current deputy leader, Jacob Zuma in a contest that has been dominated by personality clashes rather than policies.

"If division leads to retribution, that's what will destroy the ANC... Part of our responsibility is to avoid such an outcome," Mbeki told the Mail & Guardian newspaper on Friday.

Given the party's electoral dominance, whoever is selected as leader following the gathering that runs from December 16-20 would be virtually assured of winning the presidency in the next vote scheduled for 2009.

Fraught relationship

Zuma is the frontrunner after taking about 60 per cent of the votes in ANC branch nominations.

The relationship between the two men is now 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 and has potential fraud and corruption charges looming over him.

If he is called to court before the 2009 elections, any campaign of his to become president could be disbanded.

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

Were Mbeki to be elected he would be constitutionally barred from standing for a third term as the country's president, but will be able to influence who becomes the ANC's presidential candidate, most likely by selecting his deputy-president.

Professor 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.

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

'Stark divisions'

"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."

However, Habib does not necessarily see Zuma or Mbeki uniting the ANC.

"I think the divisions between Zuma and Mbeki are too stark and too fundamental to create the circumstances for a bridge to be created between the two by either of the candidates' support.

"I think that both Zuma and Mbeki will advance the causes of their respective camps."

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.

Alternatively, a more organised formation could occur much like the transition of power under prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the UK.

Nelson Mandela's former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, has offered a compromise proposal to ease factionalism under which Mbeki would stay on as ANC leader and then Zuma appointed as the ANC candidate for the country's presidency in 2009.

Zuma's secretary, Nontokozo Luthuli, said Madikizela-Mandela held discussions with Zuma on Friday, but did not elaborate. SABC radio said she was also expected to hold talks with Mbeki. An ANC spokesman could not confirm those talks were scheduled.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies