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Zuma challenged for ANC leadership

President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will go head to head in the battle to lead South Africa’s ruling ANC, after both were nominated by party members on Monday.

At a quinquennial party conference, Motlanthe refused to bow to pressure to not stand, accepting a nomination to the party’s top spot to cheers from supporters along with some boos.

Since taking control of the storied party in 2007, Zuma has been embroiled in a series of financial scandals, prompting some members of the ANC to agitate for a leadership change.

Motlanthe, a former trade unionist and caretaker president who once considered entering the clergy, makes for an unlikely stalking horse.

Delegates say his softly-softly approach to running in public has been mirrored in the backrooms of the conference, with the 63-year old running a largely silent campaign.

Party insiders and political analysts give him slim chances of winning.

“The writing is on the wall,” said Samson Ramolomo, a voting delegate from Limpopo province, which backed Motlanthe in preliminary voting.

Despite the long odds, Motlanthe doubled his bet on Monday, refusing to have his name considered for the deputy president post.

So a loss will see him relegated to the back benches of the party.

He is likely to be replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, who formally threw his hat into the ring on Monday.

Some 4,000 ANC voting delegates — a number revised down from earlier estimates — are gathered in the central city of Bloemfontein to elect candidates to fill the party’s top six positions.

The vote comes as South African police announced on Monday they had arrested four armed right-wing extremists suspected of planning attacks, and there were claims that the ANC conference had been targeted.

An ANC spokesman said the party had been given a preliminary report that the men may have been on route to blow up the venue, but police denied suggestions the meeting was under threat.

Voting will begin later in the day and the results are expected late Monday or early Tuesday.

No matter who wins, few are predicting any major changes in policy.

Both Motlanthe and Zuma come from the centre-left of the party, and both have tempered their revolutionary language with overtures to international investors who are vital to South Africa’s economy.

On Sunday at the opening of the conference Zuma made the case for getting another term, wooing delegates with a robust defence of his much-criticised time in office, a pledge of change and his trademark ebullient charm.

Calling for unity, Zuma said the successful anti-apartheid movement was ready to “move into the second phase” which would focus on bringing “meaningful socio-economic freedom”.

“We worked together to bring about freedom, justice and human rights during the struggle for liberation and currently as we fight poverty, inequality and unemployment,” he said.

Acknowledging that the road to prosperity will be “long and hard”, Zuma insisted however that “the ANC remains the only hope for the poor and marginalised.”

South Africa has faced a slew of credit rating downgrades as unemployment remained stubbornly high at around 25 percent and growth slowed to the lowest rate in three years.

The vital mining sector meanwhile has been hit by waves of violent unrest including the killing of 34 miners by police in August.

Addressing investors, Zuma said he wanted to “dismiss the perceptions that our country is falling apart”.

He eschewed talk of privatising the mining sector and backed a centrist plan to improve the economy over two decades.

While Zuma’s camp appears confident of victory, legal problems could yet throw up a hurdle to his re-election as party leader.

Ahead of the meeting, South Africa’s constitutional court ruled that procedural irregularities in selecting leaders meant Free State delegates should not vote for the next party leader.

That presented ANC leaders with a tough choice: exclude the hosts, or let them take part — risking a later court ruling that could nullify the results of the whole leadership conference.

The ANC decided in favour of the latter in a closed-door session, leaving the door open to legal challenges.