D-Day looms for South Africa's Jacob Zuma
South Africa's governing African National Congress (ANC) is preparing for a leadership contest which could decide whether it will reinforce the pattern of Africa's well-documented post-colonial failures or break away from a dark past into a bright future for Africa's largest economy.
The stakes could not be higher for President Jacob Zuma - he is up for re-election at the conference in Mangaung, where the ANC was founded 100 years ago.
With the ANC's huge majority in South Africa, whoever leads the party is virtually assured of leading the country after the 2014 elections.
In 2007 President Zuma was catapulted into the top job at the previous such conference, in Polokwane, when he ousted his long-term friend and comrade, then-President Thabo Mbeki in a humiliating defeat by a majority of 61% to 39%.
Since the ANC opened nominations on 1 October, those who support a second term for President Zuma seem to be in the majority compared to those who support his much loved but somewhat reserved deputy Kgalema Motlanthe - the only other candidate.
End Quote Thabo Mbeki Former South African president
We are allowing ourselves to progress towards a costly disaster of a protracted and endemic general crisis”
President Zuma's successes in his first term have been partially overshadowed recently by the Marikana massacre, when 34 striking miners were shot dead by police during a bloody pay dispute at the Lonmin platinum mine on 16 August - the most deadly police action since the end of apartheid.
His critics say that President Zuma's lethargic style of leadership is fuelling the decline of his ANC and the economy, which is struggling to maintain growth rates enjoyed elsewhere on the continent.
Another dark cloud hanging over Mr Zuma, sometimes referred to by his clan name Msholozi, is his alleged use of public money to fund a multi-million dollar renovation at his private rural homestead in Nkandla.
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is investigating whether a government department is funding home improvements amounting to 248m rand ($28m), at a time when miners are fighting to earn a salary of 12,500 rand ($1,400) per month.
Reports in local newspapers said the building costs include a clinic, helicopter pad and underground bunkers amongst other facilities.
Mr Zuma denies any wrongdoing, saying he took out a mortgage for the development.
Another charge which may affect President Zuma's support in Mangaung is that of widespread corruption.
There is a perception that under his leadership, corruption is on the rise and that his family is benefiting from nepotism by getting business deals purely because they are related to the president.Enemy within?
His old friend turned political foe Mr Mbeki broke a four-year silence when he launched a scathing attack on Mr Zuma's lacklustre leadership style, saying he was "deeply troubled by a feeling of great unease that our beloved motherland is losing its sense of direction, and that we are allowing ourselves to progress towards a costly disaster of a protracted and endemic general crisis".
Mr Mbeki continued: "I, for one, am not certain about where our country and nation will be tomorrow, and what I should do in this regard, to respond to what is obviously a dangerous and unacceptable situation of directionless and unguided national drift."
President Zuma's greatest challenge does not come from the opposition benches of parliament, it comes from within.
Mr Motlanthe, 63, is a quiet, popular former political prisoner who is a rather reluctant presidential candidate.
- Joined ANC at 17
- Imprisoned on Robben Island for 10 years
- Charismatic and populist politician
- Became president in 2009
- Plagued by corruption allegations
- 70 years old, married with four wives and 21 children
- His Zulu name "Gedleyihlekisa", means one who smiles while grinding his enemies
- Political high point: Major ARV roll out
- Political low point: Sacked as deputy president in 2005
A former trade unionist in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he served as president for six months in 2008-9 after Mr Mbeki was recalled by a divided ANC.
In a BBC interview, he said he accepted that people were right to criticise the ANC:
"The harsher that judgement is, the better for the ANC. We ought to hear the truth as painful as it is and take steps to address the basis of those concerns," he told the Newsday programme.
"If we fail to stay on our toes because of the cries of the people, then we don't deserve deserve to hold these positions of responsibility."
Unlike Mr Zuma, who usually breaks into song and dance on podiums across the country, Mr Motlanthe is a very private and restrained man.
While Mr Zuma was nominated by six provinces and the women's and veterans' leagues, Mr Motlanthe has received the backing of three provinces, including the economic hub Gauteng, and the youth league.
He recently told journalists he was "agonising" over whether to challenge Mr Zuma.
- Joined the ANC in the 1970s
- Imprisoned on Robben Island for 10 years after the Soweto Uprising
- On his release joined National Union of Mineworkers, rising to become its secretary general
- Guards his privacy, a self-confessed jazz enthusiast
- 63 years old, separated with three children
- Nicknamed "Mkhulu", which means grandfather in Zulu
- Political high point: Smooth six months as caretaker president
- Political low point: Looks unlikely to unseat Zuma and could lose his current position
Mr Motlanthe is supported by the expelled firebrand ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, although the deputy president sought to downplay this, pointing out that the Youth League only had 45 votes in the Mangaung conference and so "is not a king-maker".
Mr Motlanthe does not want South Africa's rich mines to be nationalised, as Mr Malema has been demanding.
If he decides to take on Mr Zuma and wins, he could breathe new life into the ANC. If he loses that would end his career in the party.
But by failing to quash the speculation, it looks as though he may already have signed his political death warrant.
The pro-Zuma factions have now nominated Mr Motlanthe's former comrade in the National Union of Mineworkers, veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, for deputy leader. He has 65% of the nominations so far but this could change before the Mangaung conference.
If Mr Ramaphosa accepts the nomination and wins, Mr Motlanthe would lose his position in the party leadership.
During the Marikana dispute, Mr Ramaphosa was criticised by some for his links to Lonmin but he remains popular in the business community and his nomination shows he has not lost his support within the ANC.
For Mr Motlanthe, who is described in Ebrahim Harvey's book Kgalema Motlanthe, A Political Biography, as a quiet man, a deep thinker, it is decision time.
But what would Mr Motlanthe do differently from Mr Zuma if elected?
First and foremost, some say he would bring dignity to the highest office in the land, in contrast to the lurid headlines about the polygamous Mr Zuma's private life.
In the ANC, leaders can only bring their individual style but very little substance, purely because policy decisions are taken by the collective and therefore no leader can introduce policies that were not discussed at the ANC headquarters in Luthuli House.
So why does Mr Zuma remain the favourite to win?Honeymoon over
He is a populist, good with crowds and with some noted success in the fight against HIV and Aids, getting South Africa recognised as one of the Brics group of developing nation (joining Brazil, Russia, India and China), getting his ex-wife and former Former Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected as chairperson of the African Union commission.
Under President Zuma, 70, also a former Robben Island prisoner, the HIV infection rates have drastically come down and he is currently overseeing the largest HIV/Aids treatment programme on the planet.
But more than 18 years after the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation", has clearly come to the end of its honeymoon period.
Can the beloved ANC of Madiba - the clan name used to refer to Mr Mandela - survive in the hands of the man from Nkandla?
Some in the ANC believe that if Mr Zuma continues to lead for another term which translates into seven years, including a five-year presidential term, then it could prove to be the beginning of the party's demise.