JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma looks set for re-election as head of the ruling ANC in December but the battle for the post of his deputy could thrust millionaire businessman and former unionist Cyril Ramaphosa back into political prominence.
Despite sluggish growth in Africa's biggest economy, bloody labour strife that dented South Africa's image this year and a slew of scandals during Zuma's three years in power, five of the country's nine provinces are backing the president to stay on as leader of the African National Congress.
This line-up suggests Zuma has seen off a campaign to replace him with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, whose own silence on whether he is in the running has opened up the chance of a political comeback by business tycoon Ramaphosa.
Leadership of Nelson Mandela's 100-year-old liberation movement would virtually guarantee Zuma another five years as state president in a 2014 election, given the support the ANC can still count on from South Africa's black majority.
Nominations for top ANC leadership positions for the December 16-20 party conference close on Friday.
Zuma, who ousted former President Thabo Mbeki in a fight to head the party in 2007, has obtained wide endorsement from ANC branches across five provinces, including his home KwaZulu-Natal, which will have the largest number of voting delegates at the conference in the central city of Mangaung.
The expectation that Zuma will carry the ANC leadership race has taken some steam out of the contest and provides an element of political continuity, even though many have been critical of his lacklustre performance in office.
Zuma's reputation as president was tarnished by criticism that his government mishandled a wave of violent mining strikes in recent months that saw at least 50 people killed, 34 of them striking miners shot by police in a single day in August. It was the deadliest labour violence since apartheid ended in 1994.
Critics on the left within his own party accused the 70-year-old president, who is proud of his Zulu origins and likes to present himself as a genial 'man of the people', of abandoning poor and working class South Africans.
Business leaders said Zuma's government did not move quickly enough to halt the labour troubles that led to downgrades from two credit ratings agencies for South Africa, whose deep social and economic inequalities are seen as an Achilles Heel.
"His leadership has led to a myriad of conundrums around policies, and investors expect more inaction from him," Peter Attard-Montalto, emerging market economist at Nomura International, told Reuters.
Since Zuma took office in 2009, protests about basic services have become an almost daily occurrence in urban areas across South Africa as the ANC struggles to fix a broken education system and address chronic unemployment and poverty.
This has generated opposition to Zuma from elements within the party who demand radical economic and social reforms to achieve a fairer sharing out of the national wealth.
Two provinces have come out in favour of Motlanthe to be party leader.
But sources in the camp of the bearded and bespectacled deputy president, who is 63, said he was reluctant to challenge his boss in next month's internal ANC election.
Motlanthe's silence on whether he will stand has also forced Zuma's supporters to look elsewhere for a deputy president.
"Zuma's emissaries initially approached Motlanthe to stay on as deputy president on condition that he will get their support for president in the next ANC election (in 2017)," said one Zuma campaigner. "But his silence, and subsequent support from some provinces to go it alone, has made us decide to look elsewhere."
This has opened the door for Ramaphosa, a respected and influential member of the ANC's National Executive Committee, who has been backed as candidate to be Zuma's deputy in the party by at least four of the provinces.
Reuters spoke to official sources and lobbyists in all nine provinces and although Ramaphosa, 60, appeared to have strong grassroots support from local branches, it was not clear if he would in the end accept the nomination.
"Cyril is the best man for the job, he brings integrity but we can only hope that he accepts the nomination. He expects guarantees that this will line him up to become the automatic choice for president next time around," said one ANC official from KwaZulu-Natal.
BUSINESS OR POLITICS
Ramaphosa is hailed along with Mandela as a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle. As a founder leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, he led a three-week strike against South Africa's white mining bosses in 1987 that gained him international renown.
But he left politics for business in 1997 three years after the end of apartheid, and is now South Africa's second richest black entrepreneur.
But his shareholding in Lonmin, the company at the centre of the August 16 Marikana mine killings in which 34 strikers were shot by police, has laid him open to accusations that he has betrayed his original working class allegiances.
An ANC member from the Free State province, who asked not to be named, said: "We really don't know if he will leave his high life in business to come back to a position in the ANC."
Ramaphosa's extensive business empire includes ownership of the MacDonald's South Africa franchise, he is the chairman of telecoms giant MTN, and also sits on the board of Standard Bank, Africa's largest bank by assets, and of brewer SABMiller.
In the ANC's closed political culture, open ambition is frowned upon, so Ramaphosa, Mothlanthe, or any other candidates are unlikely to go public with their intentions before the nomination process closes on Friday.
The contest will be fought behind closed doors in a five-day conference in Mangaung next month with 91 percent of voters being ordinary rank and file members. The balance will come from national and provincial leaders, the women's league, youth league and veterans league.
Although Ramaphosa's nomination may go down well with the business sector, insiders said he would not have carte blanche over economic policy.
"Whatever his success in business was does not matter," said a senior ANC official from Mpumalanga province.
"The ANC discusses policies as a collective, it's not up to individuals," the official added.