POLOKWANE, South Africa (Reuters) -'s ruling ANC, torn by the worst rift in its history, on Sunday began a conference expected to put controversial politician on track to become the country's next president.
le between supporters ofand current for leadership of the party has deeply divided the previously monolithic ANC, which has led Africa's biggest economy since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Reflecting the concern of party veterans,told delegates in a message: "Of course it saddens us to see and hear of the nature of the differences currently in the organization."
Mbeki defended his record in his opening conference speech, but acknowledged the gravity of the divisions. "Completely unacceptable tendencies have emerged within our movement, which threaten the very survival of the ANC," he said.
Zuma, a populist who has recovered from a corruption scandal and a rape trial, in which he was acquitted, is almost certain to become president when Mbeki steps down in 2009 if he wins leadership of the dominant.
He has already secured a strong majority of party branch nominations but Mbeki is still fighting to fend off the challenge and secure his third term as ANC leader.
This would give him strong influence over the choice of next president, even though he is barred from standing again himself.
But almost all bets are on Zuma. Delegates said Mbeki had missed a chance to rally support, instead making a detailed three-hour speech on his policies that sent some delegates to sleep while others sat in stony silence.
"It was too detailed and it lacked a lot of passion," said tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, who was once seen as a compromise leadership candidate but now backs Zuma.
Some delegates at the five-day conference booed Mbeki's ministers and aides and cheered Zuma supporters as they arrived.
RESULT ON MONDAY
The ANC said leadership voting would start late on Sunday, with the result released on Monday.
Mbeki, who took over the party from Mandela in 1997 and then the country in 1999, accused some ANC members of dishonesty:
"This is the practice that again is entirely foreign to our movement -- the practice of using untruths, of resorting to dishonest means and deceit to achieve particular goals."
Mbeki fired Zuma, then the country's deputy president, in 2005 after he was linked to a corruption scandal surrounding a multi-billion dollar arms deal. Although the case against him collapsed, investigators have now submitted fresh evidence.
A rape trial in which he was acquitted in 2006 has often overshadowed his status as an anti-apartheid hero who spent 10 years atwith Mandela.
Many poor South Africans regard him as a man of the people who can bring the benefits of black majority rule to the poor, millions of whom still live in townships that are a glaring reminder of decades of domination by the white minority.
Zuma has tried to reassure foreign investors that he would pursue the strategies that have delivered an economic boom -- despite the support he has received from increasingly vocal left-leaning trade unions and the Communist Party, certain to press for easier fiscal policies and more social spending.
Mbeki, often described as aloof and arrogant, has won praise from the business community and a new black middle class. But many South Africans say he is out of touch with millions of poor who have yet to benefit from black rule.
(Additional reporting by Phumza Macanda, Ron Derby and Paul Simao; Writing by Marius Bosch and Mike Georgy; Editing by Barry Moody and Kevin Liffey)By Bate Felix