SOUTH Africa deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, has ended months of speculation by confirming he will run against Jacob Zuma for the top job next week.
The leadership contest is likely to dominate and divide the most important meeting of the African National Congress (ANC) for five years. Some 4,500 delegates will descend on Mangaung where Africa’s oldest liberation movement was born a century ago.
Motlanthe's announcement on Thursday was greeted with "great excitement and jubilation" by the ANC youth wing, but the general consensus is that he has left it too late.
The enigmatic number two remained tight-lipped about his intentions until three days before the conference, frustrating a so-called "anyone but Zuma" campaign, which saw the president as vulnerable in a year of turmoil.
The ANC is still a party of "comrades" and "cadres", where individuals claim to defer to the collective. Such is the peculiar shadow war within it that only last week Motlanthe delivered an ANC century lecture lavishing praise on his rival for the presidency.
At a recent press conference with foreign correspondents, Motlanthe, 63, took meek humility to new extremes, protesting: "I have a political attitude but I'm not a politician."
Asked to define what sets him apart from Zuma, the reluctant candidate replied: "We agree on broad policy of the ANC, we participate, we work together in all of those issues, we debate where our take on any situation is different and agree on what the next step ought to be. But it's not ideological differences, as it were."
As Motlanthe continued to procrastinate, South Africa’s media has already declared the election for Zuma based on votes taken by a show of hands in ANC branches around the country.
These showed overwhelming support for the president in his home province, KwaZulu-Natal, which has by far the most conference delegates, as well as Mpumalanga, North West, Free State, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape.
The final tally gave Zuma 2,521 branch nominations and Motlanthe 863, results likely to be more or less reflected on the conference floor.
With all the usual advantages of incumbency, Zuma benefited from a disciplined re-election campaign orchestrated by loyal supporters in influential positions.
Some party diehards may have felt that, whatever Zuma's weaknesses, continuity is preferable to a bitterly divisive regicide such as that against Thabo Mbeki at the last such conference at Polokwane in 2007.
But there have also been widespread allegations of vote-rigging, the use of "ghost" delegates to boost Zuma's numbers and eruptions of political violence; in one instance, an armed gang reportedly burst into a branch meeting and threatened to shoot members who did not vote for Zuma.
With Zuma all but certain to lead the ANC into the 2014 general election, the biggest suspense at Mangaung is around the question of who will be elected his deputy – and heir apparent.
The struggle veteran turned tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa is way out in front after the provincial nominations while the incumbent Motlanthe is trailing last, party because of tactical voting by Zuma supporters.
The rest of the 53rd national conference, due to start on Sunday under the shadow of Nelson Mandela's ongoing hospital stay, is expected to discuss how to implement a national development plan produced by a government-appointed brains trust.
Other likely issues include job creation, land reform, organisational renewal and state intervention in the mining sector following violent unrest including the shooting of workers at Marikana.
"The ANC will emerge from Mangaung more united if it musters the moral courage for the serious introspection required to reclaim the moral high ground," wrote Pallo Jordan, a party stalwart and former arts and culture minister, in the Business Day newspaper.
Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said on Thursday the unity of the ANC was "sacrosanct" and delegates should not devote their main energy to a leadership contest.
"We agree that the national conference at Mangaung canot be ‘business as usual’. Our broad movement and the country is demanding a clear message of change."