INDICATIONS are that the African National Congress (ANC) is headed for a bruising battle at its Mangaung conference in two weeks’ time.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s mind is clearly made up. He confidently states that his decision at Mangaung will not be a difficult one, although true to his cryptic and guarded nature he does not say what it will be.

The question of his availability to take on President Jacob Zuma for the number one position in the ANC — which would guarantee him the country’s presidency — is still a source of speculation. But to the man himself, this is a matter between him and the electoral commission that is running the election on behalf of the ANC.

"It’s not difficult at all; if they ask me that question I will give an answer," he says.

Should he stand, his chances of success look rather slim, with Mr Zuma enjoying the support of the provinces that will take the most votes to Mangaung. But whether he will win is probably the last issue on Mr Motlanthe’s mind.

There are those who believe that it is still possible to handle an ANC election in the old-fashioned way of not campaigning. Mr Motlanthe is a firm believer in this, as he says the leaders who were elected five years ago have a duty to remain principled in the build-up to Mangaung.

However, like former president Thabo Mbeki did in Polokwane, Mr Motlanthe may arrive in Mangaung and realise, if he hasn’t already, that the old-fashioned ANC no longer exists. Votes are bought, and delegates often ditch the mandate of their branches to vote for someone else.

Mr Motlanthe has been nominated by one of the ANC’s three leagues and by Gauteng, while Mr Zuma has the nod of five provinces. The other provinces — Limpopo, Western Cape and North West — held chaotic provincial nomination gatherings dominated by factional politics, with no one willing to back down. So tense were the meetings that the Western Cape could not officially nominate a candidate, while the North West and Limpopo have been dominated by allegations of skulduggery. These are provinces where Mr Motlanthe enjoys support, but Mr Zuma’s campaign team has put up a strong fight.

The perception of underhand tactics during the nominations indicates the kind of atmosphere Mangaung will be.

This environment shows how the ANC is failing to manage the contest. It is Polokwane all over again. The question is whether anyone will readily accept the outcome of the conference as a product of a fair process. Will the winner have credibility?

Also, if indeed there is a contest, will the winning group be prepared to work with the losers? The Polokwane conference five years ago saw the winner take all and left deep divisions. Hardly a year after the conference, Mr Mbeki, who lost the battle of Polokwane to Mr Zuma, was instructed by the ANC to stand down as the country’s president.

Will the same thing happen to Mr Motlanthe ? His term as South Africa’s deputy president expires in 2014.

The indication is that the Zuma camp is prepared for a leadership contest, judging by how they have quickly named Cyril Ramaphosa as a stand-in. In the event Mr Motlanthe stands against Mr Zuma and loses — and is not re-elected as deputy — will the dominant group resist the urge to push him out of government office before his term expires? It seems the ANC has tied itself in a knot again.