In order to retain or contest leadership in the ANC, prospective leaders require strong backers and strategic lobbying in party structures. But the journey to Mangaung has sparked an assortment of indistinguishable factions who are campaigning more on the basis of vested interest than support for their candidates. This spells trouble for Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe and Tokyo Sexwale.
During this year's rolling ANC centenary celebrations, the one aspect of the party's history unlikely to be remembered or spoken of is the existence of factional battles throughout its history. Even when discordant points in the party's history are recollected, ANC leaders tend to romanticise them, emphasising the strength of the organisation rather than the battles which caused internal turbulence.
Over the years, factions have emerged over various issues: the tactics to defeat apartheid, militants versus moderates, race, workerists versus African nationalists and leadership contestation. Prior to 1990, the cliques and cabals centred on dominant groups at the different terrains of struggle - either in exile, in the underground and in the Mass Democratic Movement. Robben Island had its own hierarchy and conflicts over time.
The first open leadership challenge in the ANC after 1990 was between former president Thabo Mbeki and former SACP general secretary Chris Hani. At the 1991 national conference of the ANC in Durban, the first gathering of the party in South Africa since 1959, the two leaders were both up for the position of deputy president.
For the good of the party and to prevent further divisiveness, the party elders such as Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela prevailed and prevented a public showdown. They convinced Mbeki and Hani, both formidable leaders with significant support, to stand down and, as a compromise, Walter Sisulu was elected unopposed.
Later, as a result of a clash of wills between Mbeki and former ANC secretary- general Cyril Ramaphosa, factions sprung up around the two powerful men on either side of former president Nelson Mandela. Mbeki's faction succeeded in convincing Mandela to appoint their man as his deputy in government, leaving Ramaphosa bitter and angry for years to come.
After Mbeki's election as ANC president in 1997, he took firm hold of the party and left little space for contestation and factional battles.
The only place where opposition could sprout was in the alliance. After Zwelinzima Vavi and Blade Nzimande were elected general secretaries of Cosatu and the SACP respectively, an anti-Mbeki coalition began to take shape.
While the SACP and Cosatu fiercely opposed Mbeki on macro-economic policy, they were only able to really mobilise against him when he exposed a tangible area of weakness: his dissident views on Aids. They also blasted Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" policy on Zimbabwe and criticised his authoritarian leadership style.
But Mbeki was still virtually untouchable behind a wall of powerful players consisting of his close friends from exile, led by the Pahad brothers, state securocrats, heavy hitters in his Cabinet and his guardians at Luthuli House, led by the then head of the presidency, Smuts Ngonyama.
At the height of his presidency, Mbeki initiated a surprise manoeuvre to oust the Left from the alliance. In a stinging speech at the ANC's policy conference in September 2002, he all but told the SACP and Cosatu to get out of the alliance, inferring that the ANC was better off without them.
"Our movement and its policies are also under sustained attack from domestic and foreign left sectarian factions that claim to be the best representatives of the workers and the poor of our country. They accuse our movement of having abandoned the working people, saying that we have adopted and are implementing neo-liberal policies.
"On the basis of a false presentation of what is happening in our country, they have chosen to direct their offensive against our movement rather than the political and other domestic and international forces that, objectively, constitute an obstacle to the achievement of the goals of the national democratic revolution," Mbeki said.
"We are permanently interested in increasing the size and strength of our movement. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we must also pay particular attention to the principle - better fewer, but better!"
Mbeki was so powerful at the time that he did not face any serious retaliation for such a daring move. The opposing faction, primarily in the ranks of the SACP and Cosatu, were left smarting and three months later at the ANC conference in Stellenbosch, struggled to secure significant representation on the NEC.
The critical turning point came, however, when it was revealed that then deputy president Jacob Zuma was under investigation by the National Prosecuting Authority relating to corruption in the arms deal. Suspicion slowly grew in the ANC and the alliance that Mbeki had a hand in Zuma's troubles but these remained under the radar for several years, leaving Mbeki and his faction to reign supreme.
The trigger for the fiercest post-liberation factional battle was when Mbeki fired Zuma and the Left found the traction it needed to stage a crusade against Mbeki. With Zuma's trials and victim status forming an ideal campaign platform, a rag-tag army consisting of leaders from Cosatu, the SACP, the ANC Youth League and KwaZulu-Natal championed the operation to have Mbeki ousted as ANC president.
The "coalition of the wounded" grew in size and influence as more and more people who were shunted and hurt by Mbeki's bullying rallied behind Zuma.
Zuma's victory was seen as the triumph of the underdogs who defeated the most powerful man on the continent, backed by the might of state power.
Shortly after Mbeki's recall from office and the formation of Cope, however, Zuma's camp fragmented. With no real commonality to bind the disparate groups and people who carried Zuma to power, they began to turn on each other, even before he became state president. There was fierce competition for Zuma's ear and for proximity to him. Disputes arose over who should be appointed as caretaker president as Nzimande and others opposed Kgalema Motlanthe taking the position.
After Zuma became president, the ANC Youth League under Julius Malema became a force unto itself, gradually becoming critical of the president. A pre-election agreement between Zuma, Vavi and Nzimande to hold regular meetings to keep their relationship on track was difficult to maintain. Instead, Zuma appeared to be spending an inordinate amount of time with businesspeople, the imposing Gupta family in particular.
Rumours began circulating that the ANC leader in KwaZulu-Natal, Zweli Mkhize, one of Zuma's most trusted advocates, was "close" to Tokyo Sexwale, the housing minister with perennially open presidential ambitions. This eventually led to the production of Richard Mdluli's dubious crime intelligence report alleging that some of Zuma's closest backers had turned on him and were plotting to have Sexwale replace him.
As Zuma's leadership weaknesses became apparent and blunders were exposed, less and less people in the ANC came to his defence, apart from ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, whose future in the ANC is dependent on Zuma retaining the presidency.
With the race for the ANC presidency now being forced into the open, despite ANC efforts to contain jockeying until October, it is increasingly difficult to identify definite camps in the party. Unlike 2007, there are no longer blocs but financial and political interests at play. Leadership slates doing the rounds are structured more to satisfy these interests rather than combinations of people with good working relationships or who have the capacity to lead.
Zuma's biggest advantage at present is the lack of a clear challenger for the presidency. With the ANC's centenary commemorations under way, he is also able to campaign across the country under the guise of celebrating the 100 years of party's history. So far, the only clear thorn in his side is the ANC Youth League, which has openly declared that he should be voted out at Mangaung.
Malema's expulsion from the party resulted in last week's open warfare in the NEC, ostensibly between people who were all in the Zuma camp five years ago.
Power brokers in Limpopo, who were firmly behind Zuma in 2007, are at the forefront to have him removed due to their close relationship with Malema and the national government's squeeze on the provincial government's resources.
Cosatu has held back on naming preferred candidates for leadership in the ANC due to the disappointing outcome of their last gamble. The trade union federation is also divided around support for Zuma and intensive discussions are under way with influential leaders in affiliate unions to lobby for the various candidates.
The SACP congress next month is expected to endorse Zuma's leadership although it has lost its significant lobbying power in the alliance.
KwaZulu-Natal, with the biggest representation at the Mangaung conference, is Zuma's biggest trump card - although discontent over Zuma's firing of Bheki Cele could breed pockets of opposition.
Motlanthe still remains the reluctant candidate and therefore his backers are having an uphill climb in trying to lobby ANC structures when there is still a real chance he will not contest the presidency.
His most vocal backers are the ANC Youth League, but no provinces have yet come out in clear support of his candidacy.
However, Gauteng has emerged as a powerful lobby, which could throw its support and influence behind either Motlanthe or Sexwale.
Sexwale's failed 2007 attempt and inclination to be too bombastic on the campaign trail make his supporters nervous. His Anything But Zuma (ABZ) is trying to coalesce those disgruntled with Zuma's leadership under a single banner. The brains behind this campaign hope that once a significant faction takes shape, a compromise candidate - they hope it will be Sexwale - will be put forward to challenge Zuma.
The main defect with this strategy is that it is built around negative campaigning, which would not sit easily with hard-core ANC supporters.
Until a candidate can be put up who will be presented as a leader who can rescue the ANC from its leadership and factional battles, and the burden of corruption, it's still Zuma's race to lose. As The Spear saga showed, the party will still rally behind its president when the chips are down.
However, with the ANC as fragmented as it is now, the victor at Mangaung is destined to inherit a more divided ANC than is evident now. The only way to prevent an almighty showdown in December would be to negotiate a compromise beforehand, similar to what the elders did in 1991.
Unfortunately for the ANC, though, there aren't any respected elders left who could hold sway with the contenders or even a powerful enough faction in the party to force such a deal. But the history of the ANC has never been predictable and the next six months could still yield a surprise outcome in Mangaung.