Johannesburg, South Africa -- In December, leaders of South Africa's ruling African National Congress will pick a successor to Thabo Mbeki, the party's current president.
The election will have huge implications. In South Africa the dominant political party chooses the nation's president, and the ANC has 70 percent of the seats in Parliament. The party's next leader will almost certainly lead the nation.
Another reason it will be huge is that the party is sharply divided over how best to lift millions of blacks out of poverty, 13 years after the end of the racist apartheid system. That has been highlighted by a public sector strike that began this month and has closed schools and crippled government hospitals around the country.
So, the next leader of this young democracy - only the iconic Nelson Mandela and Mbeki have led the party and nation since 1994 - could shape South Africa for years to come.
At the moment, there is no obvious front runner. And the party's deep-rooted disdain for visible political ambition, born during the unity-is-everything decades-long struggle against apartheid, may well deprive this country's 47 million people of much hard information between now and December about who the new leader might be.
Still, last month, freedom fighter-turned-business mogul Tokyo Sexwale told a television interviewer that he would "consider" the presidency "if nominated." By American standards it might seem disingenuously coy. But under the strict rules of ANC politics here, it was a bold statement that nearly counts as a declaration of candidacy.
The fact that Sexwale is strongly hinting he would take the job, and has sought high-profile settings to drop the hint, is, well, pretty revolutionary. As Steven Friedman, a political analyst with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, put it, "That is new in ANC politics."
The 54-year-old Sexwale, it is assumed, would largely follow Mbeki's conservative economic path: Keep inflation low and foster the private sector while pushing companies to hire non-whites and bring them into ownership.
It is also assumed that Sexwale's potential rival, ANC Deputy President Jacob Zuma, would be a populist intent on loosening the public purse strings to benefit the masses more directly. He is a charismatic man beloved by the trade unions and the party's left wing.
But those are assumptions. While the would-be candidates are no mutes, they do not issue detailed policy papers or hold public debates. They aren't even technically candidates, after all, although Zuma, too, has bathed in the spotlight and selflessly says he would serve if asked.
"It's a very fluid situation," said Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, onetime leader of the now-defunct Progressive Party. "The unfortunate thing about it is this cloud of secrecy."
Not only does such secrecy push the succession battle into backrooms, but it leads to what Friedman calls "media back alleys." One recent story detailed bizarre claims of a plot to assassinate Zuma, 65; later a white "hobo" reportedly said a member of Zuma's camp had paid him to lie about having deadly intentions.
What's going on? One theory is that Zuma supporters want to fan suspicions that he is the victim of a right-wing conspiracy, while also diverting attention from his legal woes. Zuma was acquitted last year of raping a family friend but could yet stand trial on corruption charges linked to a murky arms deal.
It was the taint of corruption that prompted Mbeki to fire Zuma as the nation's deputy president in 2005. (He remains No. 2 in the party.) Mbeki, often portrayed as an aloof technocrat, acted after Zuma's financial adviser was convicted of arranging a bribe for Zuma.
Since then, the Mbeki and Zuma camps have only grown more hostile. Mbeki, who turns 65 on June 18, is rumored to be mulling a third term as ANC head. While the Constitution bars a third term as state president, the idea is that he could engineer his own successor when he leaves office in 2009 - and block Zuma. Though it's a touchy subject here, it's worth noting that Zuma is a Zulu and Mbeki is from the Xhosa ethnic group.
All of this has given rise to talk of a compromise candidate. Lately the talk has centered on the current secretary general of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe. (Perhaps that explains why Motlanthe sharply criticized Sexwale's recent interview as a breach of decorum.)
Some analysts say Motlanthe, 58, could paper over divisions in the ANC's broad but strained ruling alliance, whose increasingly odd bedfellows are the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The major long-term question is whether the alliance, and the party, might one day split; most observers believe that a split is at least a decade or two away.
"In the short term, a compromise candidate will be able to try and prolong the transition so you avoid a spark," said David Monyae, senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, informally called Wits, in Johannesburg. The downside is that "you don't want your transition to become a kind of perpetual transition."
The ANC has transitioned a lot already in 20 years. During the dying days of apartheid in the late 1980s, it was proudly socialist, pledging to nationalize industry as soon it took over from the white regime.
But almost from the start of Mandela's rule, the party embraced capitalism as an engine to drive prosperity. Few have embraced it more avidly than Mbeki. Many in the business world - white and black - dislike his stances on AIDS (for flirting with denialists, then withdrawing from the national discussion) and Zimbabwe (for coddling the oppressive Robert G. Mugabe), but they applaud his macroeconomic policies.
Not surprisingly, the trade unions and Communists feel betrayed by Mbeki, as do those in the party's left wing. With unemployment at nearly 40 percent and the white minority still largely in control of the economy, they argue for more state intervention. They take a dim view of Sexwale, doubting that one so rich would well serve the poor.
Despite the economic shift, the ANC retains trappings of its struggle days. Members still call one another "comrade." Struggle credentials remain vital to presidential aspirants: Both Sexwale and Zuma spent years at Robben Island's notorious prison along with Mandela.
Sexwale (pronounced "Segh-WAH-lee") likes to say that in 1998, after a stint as premier of the province that includes Johannesburg, the ANC "deployed" him to business - a deployment that has earned him well over $100 million by some estimates. He was a logical choice to play the Donald Trump role in South Africa's version of The Apprentice."
Some observers expect ANC leaders to reach a compromise to make sure that they, and not the 4,000 voting delegates, determine the party's future.
"The most unstable variable is the rank and file of the ANC. That is why the elites need to reach a settlement before the conference in December," said Aubrey Matshiqi, a senior associate political analyst at the Center on Policy Studies.
Meanwhile, Sexwale shows no signs of quieting down. Earlier this month at Wits University, he told a packed crowd that in the quest for "a better world, a free-thinking, more tolerant and open society is a primary prerequisite, where dissent is never to be disregarded as disloyalty."
Such talk cheers Friedman, whatever becomes of Sexwale's non-candidacy candidacy. "If we have a competitive contest for ANC president, I think we'd be in a lot better shape than before. I think it would be a big step forward for democratic politics."