Senior figures in South Africa's ruling African National Congress are pushing for a compromise to prevent the leadership tussle between President Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma from plunging the country into turmoil.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of Nelson Mandela and a heroine of the struggle against white rule, took the lead yesterday by suggesting a deal in which Mr Mbeki would stay on as ANC leader until 2009 when his second and final term as president of the country expires. Mr Mbeki would then hand over the leadership of both the country and ANC to Mr Zuma from 2009.
Under her proposal to avoid a face-off between the two leaders at a congress starting this weekend, Mr Mbeki would also stop Mr Zuma from being charged with corruption over his alleged involvement in a multibillion-dollar arms scandal. But both men seem prepared to take their battle to the wire and have roundly rejected Mrs Madikizela-Mandela's plan.
Also seemingly dead in the water are suggestions by other ANC figures that both men should step aside in favour of a compromise candidate such as the prominent businessman and ANC figure Cyril Ramaphosa.
Analysts say the fact that people like Mrs Madikizela-Mandela are clamouring for a compromise indicates that they fear that the ruling party is heading for a dangerous split.
With Mr Zuma having won primary elections by a wide margin for the leadership of the party, his supporters will not easily accept an Mbeki victory and could resort to violence if their candidate is defeated. Mr Mbeki's supporters are also ready to fight to ensure that he clings to power.
Rejecting Mrs Madikizela-Mandela's proposal, Mr Zuma's main backer, the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, said at least 60 per cent of ANC delegates who voted in early primaries had already endorsed Mr Zuma for the leadership. Any suggestion that he should agree to a compromise deal was untenable, Mr Vavi said.
Mr Mbeki's main backer and campaign spokesman, the deputy defence minister Mluleki George, also said a compromise deal was unacceptable. Offering Mr Zuma immunity from prosecution as suggested by Mrs Madikizela-Mandela would also compromise the criminal justice system.
The ANC meets in the northern city of Polokwane for a crunch conference to elect its new leaders from Sunday. President Mbeki, who took over from Nelson Mandela in a smooth transition in 1999, argues that he has a duty to agree to calls by party leaders who want him to continue serving the party. This is a refrain used by many African dictators who overstay their welcome.
Those determined to thwart Mr Mbeki have rallied behind Mr Zuma, because they believe he is the candidate best placed to beat Mr Mbeki, despite a possible corruption charge against him and bizarre comments he made during a rape trial this year in which he was acquitted.
Some analysts fear the worst in a country in which political violence is not a new phenomenon. The prominent newspaper columnist Max du Preez has gone as far as suggesting the dropping of all criminal charges against Mr Zuma and allowing him to take over the country to maintain stability.