Denials of a split in the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's leading political party, were wearing a bit thin as a 4000-strong breakaway group held their own National Convention in Sandton, Johannesburg.

Led by Mosiuoa Lekota, a former defence minister serving in the ANC cabinet, and Mbhazima Shilowa, a former premier of Gauteng, one of South Africa's nine provinces, the delegates agreed on an official launch of a new party on December 16 this year - South Africa's Day of Reconciliation, a national holiday.

ANC President Jacob Zuma, who now faces a serious leadership challenge to stem the tide of defections from his party, responded by inviting political opponents to debate on policies. He has yet to announce where and when this will happen and whether this will help to keep his party together remains to be seen.

In opposition circles this feud is welcomed as it could break the ANC's dominance in parliament where it holds a two-thirds majority effectively giving it the power to change the constitution at its whim. At least this will push back the spectre of South Africa heading for a dictatorship for a while.

These series of events are not exactly a feather in the Zuma cap as he can be blamed for the break-up in the party starting with Judge Chris Nicholson's verdict at the Pietermaritzburg High Court in September this year. While awaiting the verdict Zuma's supporters did not only behave like an unruly mob trying to bring the Court down, but they also burned pictures in public of President Thabo Mbeki, the then president of South Africa.

Tactical error

All these actions proved totally unnecessary as the verdict turned out in favour of Zuma and eventually led to the resignation of Mbeki as president.

By insulting his democratically-elected President in public he drove the wedge between him and the Mbeki supporters so deep that it culminated in this break-up. A serious tactical error on his side, as President Mbeki was doing his last term anyway. Why disgrace him when he has only a few months left in office? On top of this the question still lingers: What would Zuma and his supporters have done if the judge did not rule in their favour?

Bribery charges

The judge's ruling that President Mbeki influenced the National Processing Authority when investigating Zuma's involvement in a multi-billions rand arms deal does however not clear his name. Zuma might still face more than 700 charges of bribery and corruption relating to the arms deal. A showdown he is seriously trying to avoid as it could negatively influence his chances to be elected President next year.

For the breakaway group under Lekota and Shilowa there are big organisational challenges lying ahead with only a few months left until the next election. While Shilowa has commanded respect as the Gauteng Premier, Lekota's organisational capabilities are suspect. While Minister of Defence, the South African Defence Force, once the strongest in Africa, was reduced to an ill-disciplined band of less than 50,000 strong with most of its equipment now out of commission. It seems logical that Shilowa should emerge as the leader here.

South Africa's next general election should take place within five years of the previous one which makes the latest election day April 13 next year. The Constitution however gives the President the prerogative to postpone the election by a further three months, which could have South Africans at the polls only by mid-July next year.

Before their current crisis the ANC publicly admitted that they are already running more than four months late with their election drive. Sorting out their parliamentary priority list is an important part of this preparation, which takes around three months to do. This is normally a fierce negotiation process where their coalition partners, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, also demand a stake. The ANC won 279 of the 400 seats available in parliament during the 2004 election. Since then their number has grown with floor crossings in Parliament.

The real challenge for both parties lies ahead when the battle is taken to the streets and into the poor townships known for their volatility and intolerance. Earlier this year xenophobic violence aimed mostly at Zimbabwean, Malawian and Mozambican illegal immigrants claimed around 50 lives and is still going on.

The ANC is known for its tactics of threatening ill-educated people in the townships making them believe that their vote is not secret. The gullible ones are convinced that privileges such as housing could be withheld from them should they not vote for them. The ANC will now be confronted with many ex-comrades resisting this. It is not impossible that the 2009 South African election can turn into a bloody affair at grassroots level.

Anthony Penderis is a former Dubai expat who has started his own political party to take part in the 2009 South African general election.