Deputy Motlanthe steps into ring for ANC leadership battle

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South African deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe is to challenge president Jacob Zuma for leadership of the ruling African National Congress next week, spicing up a one-sided race for the top political position in Africa’s biggest economy.

Mr Motlanthe’s aide Thabo Masebe ended months of speculation yesterday about the ­internal ANC election in the city of Bloemfontein, saying Mr Motlanthe would enter the contest after winning the backing of two of South Africa’s nine provinces. “I understand he will contest the presidency,” he said.

The 70-year-old Mr Zuma remains firm favourite to win re-election in Bloemfontein as head of the ANC, a position that puts him in pole position to ­secure a second five-year term as state president in an election in 2014.

The ANC, which has run South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, retains the strong emotional support of most of South Africa’s 80 per cent black majority, making a defeat at the ballot box any time this decade highly unlikely.

Mr Motlanthe has not expanded on why he will oppose the president. But he has spoken of restoring democracy and openness to Nelson Mandela’s 100-year-old liberation movement, whose image has suffered under the scandal-plagued Mr Zuma.

The president won wide support from ANC branches in five provinces, meaning that, barring any last-minute mishaps, he should emerge again as party leader in Bloemfontein.

The previous ANC election, in the city of Polokwane in 2007, was a riotous affair at which Mr Zuma ousted then-president Thabo Mbeki, creating rifts that divide the party to this day and hamper its ability to run a sophisticated emerging economy.

Mindful of the Polokwane chaos, which included delegates throwing chairs and baring their buttocks at the vanquished Mr Mbeki, the ANC’s overseers are keeping a tight lid on the vote, including even withholding the names of leadership candidates.

“We’re not at liberty to tell you the nominees,” party election commission chairman Mochubela Seekoe told a news conference.