Page last updated at 17:58 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 18:58 UK

Turning their backs on the ANC

A woman wrapped in an ANC blanket

By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Johannesburg

Mosiuoa Lekota's news conference had been billed as the launching of a new political party to challenge South Africa's ruling party.

In the event the man nicknamed "Terror" growled and snarled but stopped short of leaving the African National Congress (ANC).

But Mr Lekota and his fellow rebels' membership of the ANC may only last a few more weeks.

A Jacob Zuma supporter holding a fake machine gun with "I am ready to kill 4 Zuma" on it
Mr Lekota railed against songs that "advocate violence and the use of weapons"

"They want the ANC to push them out," Chris Lansberg from University of Johannesburg said.

"They're throwing bait at the ANC and surprisingly the ANC leadership has so far taken the bait."

If Mr Lekota, a close ally of former President Thabo Mbeki, is expelled he would be able to argue that it was part of what he called the "elimination of internal democracy within the ANC".

A congress will now be held within the next month to decide on the way forward but the former defence minister later confirmed to the BBC that it was now "inevitable and unavoidable" that a new party would be formed.

Thinly veiled

Mr Lekota says he has been brought to this point by what he called the "arrogance" and the "elimination of internal democracy" within the ANC.

But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is more about personalities than principle.

Former South African Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota
It is not known if senior ANC figures will join Mr Lekota

Mr Lekota's news conference at a radio station in Johannesburg was littered with thinly veiled criticisms of ANC President Jacob Zuma and his supporters.

Mr Zuma's sings his theme song "Umshini wami" (Bring Me My Machine Gun) at his public appearances.

Without mentioning the party president by name, Mr Lekota railed against songs that "advocate violence and the use of weapons".

Julius Malema, the outspoken head of the ANC Youth League, was lambasted for saying he would "kill for Zuma".

Mr Lekota's statement that: "Tribalism is the most serious danger to our country and to our people" is also seen as a reference to Mr Zuma's supporters, who publicly celebrate his Zulu background.

The first big question for Mr Lekota is whether he can persuade other senior ANC figures to jump ship and join him.

'Formidable force'

Mr Lekota says hundreds of local party supporters had resigned but in order to have credibility, he needs real heavyweights alongside him.

For people like Thabo Mbeki leaving the ANC is like leaving your mother and father
Former minister Essop Pahad

At last year's Polokwane Congress to elect a new ANC leadership, Mr Mbeki still secured nearly 40% in his losing bid to retain the party presidency.

If Mr Mbeki was to endorse the new party it could turn a splinter into a real split. But despite his anger at the way the party treated him, the chances of that happening still appear remote.

"Mr Mbeki won't even consider talking about a split," Essop Pahad, a former minister and one of his closest confidantes, told me in the days after Mr Mbeki's resignation.

"For people like Thabo Mbeki leaving the ANC is like leaving your mother and father."

In the country at large, Mr Lekota's new party will look to the Eastern and Western Cape, which heavily backed Mr Mbeki, for popular support.

But with a general election due in the first half of next year, they will face enormous organisational challenges to be ready by then.

"I don't think they have sufficient time to set themselves up as a credible consultative organisation," Mr Lansberg said.

"But this move has the potential to turn South Africa into a two-party dominant state. They could be a formidable force... in 10 years from now."

This is something that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu believes would be good for South Africa.

"Democracy flourishes where there is vigorous debate," he said in an interview on Sunday.

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