It is not, to put it mildly, the ANC of yesteryear. South Africa's once celebrated liberation movement, the African National Congress, appears to be coming apart at the seams.
More than 4,000 ANC delegates gathered in Polokwane, South Africa, were expected to vote Monday to choose the man who will lead their party. Since the ANC holds a large majority in parliament, the delegates are likely to be deciding who becomes president in 2009.
Voting, delayed by disagreements over procedure, was still scheduled for Monday, but results aren't expected to be announced before Tuesday evening.
Still, one result of this year's conference is already clear: the cohesiveness and shared sense of purpose that has marked the movement since its days of underground fighting apartheid is no more.
"The organization," admits ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama, "is going through deep strain."
Former President Nelson Mandela, at pains not to take sides in the increasingly bitter contest between ANC leader President Thabo Mbeki and his former deputy Jacob Zuma, pleaded with comrades Sunday to tone down the destructive rhetoric.
"Of course it saddens us to see and hear of the nature of the differences currently in the organization," Mr. Mandela told delegates in a taped statement. "Whatever decision you are to make at this conference, including decisions about leadership positions in the organization, let the noble history of the ANC guide you," he urged.
Fellow Nobel laureate and anti-apartheid hero Archbishop Desmond Tutu, meanwhile, seemed to be despairing of either of the candidates making a good leader.
"The nation is distressed and needs a political leader who cares for them and makes them feel as though they matter," he told the local Mail and Guardian newspaper in a weekend interview. Archbishop Tutu said South Africa needs a leader who can inspire it as Mandela once did, but he did not see either of the candidates as this person. "Let us not choose someone of whom most of us would be ashamed," he added, in reference to both.
But are party members listening to such pleas? At the opening ceremonies Sunday, delegates cheered, jeered, and generally shouted over party leaders trying to quiet them down. As soon as President Mbeki had finished his lackluster 2-1/2-hour opening address to the conference, hundreds of delegates broke into Mr. Zuma's anthem, the liberation song 'Bring Me My Machine gun.'
Mosiuoa Lekota, South Africa's defense minister and a key Mbeki supporter was heckled when he tried to call the congress to order.
A British-educated academic who sprinkles his speeches with quotes from Yeats and Wordsworth, Mbeki is increasingly portrayed as a detached, autocratic, and technocratic leader who has made several questionable policy choices during his almost 10 years at the helm.
Mbeki's stances on AIDS (he denies there is a link between HIV and AIDS) and Zimbabwe (where he insists on quiet diplomacy over confrontation even as the neighboring country falls into economic disarray) have particularly disappointed many of those who supported him when he took over from Mandela in 1999.
"The fact that Zuma is likely to emerge victorious is more a reflection of Mbeki's failings than of Zuma's qualities," argues Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC parliamentarian who eventually grew disillusioned, resigning in protest, and who recently wrote a critical book about corruption within the party.
Mbeki is barred by the Constitution from seeking a third term as president. But if he manages to maintain leadership of the ANC in Monday's vote, he would be able to handpick his successor and play a hand in shaping future policies.