Technically, South Africans will choose their new president two years from now. But since the ruling African National Congress controls nearly 70 percent of the vote, the real choices voters face in 2009 already will have been made, by the ANC, at a party conference that takes place this December in the northern city of Polokwane.
The ANC conference will have all the makings of a reality TV show like "Survivor," minus the ubiquitous cameras. At Polokwane, a new generation of ANC leaders – millionaire businessmen, strong-willed women, feisty trade unionists, ethnic nationalists, and at least one accused bribe-taker – will be lining up for their chance to take over the party from ANC president Thabo Mbeki, and in 2009, rule the nation.
The ANC's 52nd National Conference will be held behind closed doors, but the succession battle burst onto the public stage this week after votes by provincial party delegates indicated that Mr. Mbeki's bitter rival, Jacob Zuma, has built a solid lead.
Still, analysts say that a delegate's vote conducted in the open at the provincial level may change dramatically in the secret ballot process expected in Polokwane, and any candidate could emerge victorious. In such a crucial handover of power, from the first generation of post-apartheid leaders to the second, there is an unprecedented lack of clarity.
"This is a struggle over which direction the ANC wants to go in," says Sheila Meintjes, head of the political science department of Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. "Usually we know what is going to happen and who is going to lead. Now it's very interesting. Who will lead the country after 2009? The race is very open."
Jacob Zuma's surge
The two frontrunners in the race to become ANC president are very familiar faces here: Mbeki, who is forbidden from a third term as president of the country, but can remain president of the ANC; and former ANC deputy president Mr. Zuma, who was fired in 2005 in the wake of a scandal over an arms deal in which Zuma was accused of taking a bribe.
Charges against Zuma were dropped last year, after a court threw out evidence obtained during a search of Zuma's house and those of his lawyers, but last week the Supreme Court allowed prosecutors to readmit evidence in the case.
Zuma's supporters have cried foul. Zuma himself has threatened to take down much of the ANC leadership with him, calling them as witnesses.
Far from a diminished figure, however, Zuma seems to have strengthened his position.
According to recent votes by delegates at the provincial party level, 2,270 delegates voted for Zuma to be ANC president, and 1,396 delegates voted for Mbeki. Even the ANC Women's League backed Zuma, instead of either Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (Zuma's ex-wife) or Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, both of whom were thought to be Mbeki's choice as candidates for the national presidential race in 2009.
Many disaffected ANC members and other allies are rallying around Zuma, a man they see as the voice of the 40 percent of South Africans who are jobless, the residents of shantytowns, the trade unionists, and the tens of millions who remain in poverty despite 14 years of freedom.
"We have not [chosen] any candidate in the ANC and we won't back any candidate as an organization," says Blade Nzimande, president of the South African Communist Party, which is an alliance with the ANC and shares posts in the ANC government. "But at the same time, we cannot be blind to the fact that the majority of SACP members should prefer someone like Jacob Zuma."
The SACP and the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) are part of a ruling alliance with the ANC, although both the Communists and the labor partners have become increasingly vocal in their disagreements with Mbeki's economic policy.
But Richard Calland, a senior political analyst at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, says that Zuma's supporters in the SACP and COSATU are "naive" if they think that Zuma will become a champion for leftist causes.
"This is not a contest of ideas. It's a contest of two streams of patronage," says Mr. Calland. "I think that Nzimande and many communists are deluding themselves if they think that their ideology will benefit from having a change. But what this leadership process does is create opportunities for different people to get involved while the party is in a state of flux."
What President Mbeki wants
Mbeki's dream team, meanwhile, appears to include himself as president of the party, and to have a woman as the ANC's candidate for president of the country. The two names most frequently mentioned as possible candidates are top women members of Mbeki's cabinet: Ms. Dlamini-Zuma, and the Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Yet all eyes now seem to be turning to so-called "compromise" candidates, particularly two millionaire businessmen who come with excellent ANC credentials from the years of struggle.
Tokyo Sexwale is a former anti-apartheid activist who quit politics in the late 1990s to enter the diamond mining business.
Cyril Ramaphosa is a former trade union leader who became a director of several South African companies. Both are thought to have credentials to rule, but uncertain numbers of supporters within the ANC.
"I think things are going to start moving toward a compromise candidate," says Adam Habib, a political analyst and deputy chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. But all bets are off, Mr. Habib adds, because the ANC leadership process is opaque, with very little input from the vast majority of South Africans who are not actual ANC members.
"I think the big weakness of South African democracy is the fact that there's not a viable opposition that can create accountability" for the ruling regime, says Habib.
Like Japan, India, Mexico, and China, South Africa is dominated by the liberation movement that brought the country freedom, and in those other countries, one-party rule was a fact of life for 30, 40, and even 50 years.
South Africa's turmoil is coming much faster in that sense, Habib says.
"That is something that is worth bearing in mind, that 10 years into ANC rule, we're seeing a huge change taking place in the party," he says. "In a way, that shows a greater hope for South Africa."