BE AFRAID" warned the two giant words splashed across the front page of the current edition of the Financial Mail, South Africa's equivalent of The Economist.

The words of warning were superimposed on a full-page sepia photograph of controversial former vice-president Jacob Zuma who goes into this month's electoral congress of the ruling African National Congress with an overwhelming majority of delegates' votes to enable him to win the party presidency.

The newly elected ANC leader will more or less automatically become the next president of South Africa when the country goes to the polls in 15 months' time.

The Financial Mail, along with most of the rest of the country's media and the vast majority of the middle classes - black, white and all skin shades in between - are afraid, very afraid, of a potential Zuma presidency, which they fear could turn out to be similar to the presidency of Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

So too is the international financial community afraid, judging by the mini-collapse in the value of the rand when it was announced last week that Zuma will go to the electoral congress on December 16. He has 2270 delegate votes from the ANC's countrywide branches against 1396 for the incumbent party leader and current president, Thabo Mbeki.

Zuma's support from the grassroots is all the more remarkable because he was tried last year for rape. In a sensational trial, he admitted having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive niece more than 30 years his junior. Zuma, who was acquitted, testified that he protected himself against contracting Aids by immediately taking a shower after coitus. Cartoonists have since depicted the aspirant head of state with a shower head coming out of the top of his bald skull.

Zuma is also currently facing a potential trial for fraud and corruption in connection with South Africa's multi-billion-pound arms dealings, which is riddled with allegations of sleaze and which seems to be rotting the soul of the ANC.

Zuma's triumph over Mbeki prior to the electoral congress - which takes place from December 16 onwards in the northern city of Polokwane, formerly Pietersburg - is by far South Africa's biggest political crisis since the end of apartheid nearly 14 years ago.

The likely prospect is that South Africa will end up getting an executive president with huge powers of patronage who has criminal allegations hanging over him. The consequences of that are hard to tell, but one columnist noted: "We look north to Zimbabwe with pitying eyes and tell ourselves it couldn't happen here. Well, my friends, the seeds have been already been sown. Just wait for the harvest."

This crisis, with its uncertain repercussions, has been a long time in the making and has many origins. The three main causes are Mbeki's deep unpopularity and control freakery; Zuma's well-documented corruption and opportunistic populist politicking; and the poison that the giant arms deal with Britain, Germany, Sweden and France has spread in the ranks of the ANC, where former "comrades" have competed to get their share of barely legal "commissions", which are currently being investigated by British and German fraud squads.

Mbeki's bizarre views on HIV and Aids have sown death and confusion in South African society. Against the overwhelming international scientific consensus, he denies that HIV causes Aids. He has refused widespread demands to sack his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, a woman convicted for stealing from unconscious patients when she was a hospital director, who recommends a diet of beetroot, olive oil and garlic to cure Aids rather than well-tested anti-retroviral drugs that delay the onset of Aids - she says these drugs are deadly poisons.

It is akin to watching the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, except that the consequences of this insanity are fatal for HIV-positive South Africans. Six million of them, more than any other nation, are HIV-positive; 1000 die each day from Aids and 1000 more become HIV-positive each day. There will be around two million South African Aids orphans by the time the country stages football's World Cup in 2010.

Violent crime has got out of hand on Mbeki's watch, and he has let Robert Mugabe run rings round him when South Africa had the power to bring down the tyrant to the north within months by cutting power and oil supplies to Zimbabwe.

Mbeki has refused to listen to advice to step down from the ANC contest and let a "middle way" candidate challenge Zuma. There is a certain futility to Mbeki's desire to retain the party leadership because he must bow out from the presidency in early 2009 after serving the maximum permissible two five-year terms.

His strategy has clearly been one of "Stop Zuma" while remaining the power behind the throne, with one of his present female cabinet ministers as a surrogate president.

B UT that strategy has failed ignominiously and he will be a lame duck president for the rest of his term. The rank-and-file have had enough of his aloofness, arrogance and his manipulation of patronage to achieve his own ends. This was starkly illustrated two months ago when Mbeki sacked Vusi Pikoli, director of the National Prosecuting Authority - the so-called Scorpions, modelled on America's FBI - just as Pikoli's investigators were about to serve arrest warrants on the national police chief, Jackie Selebi. There has been a torrent of reports on the relationship between Selebi, a Mbeki confidante, and known criminal gangs, some Mafia-related.

The struggle between Mbeki and Zuma has moved beyond all considerations of party and national interest. "It has become a blood feud," said veteran liberal journalist Allister Sparks. "Cain versus Abel rather than Saul versus David - it is all about personalities and the toxic hatreds the two camps have fomented.

"It has been allowed to fester to the point where it could seriously divide the party and damage the country."

Professor Sipho Seepe, president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, said; "Mbeki would be well advised to withdraw from the race rather than to face the ignominy of being hauled out of office kicking and screaming. Beneath his presidential feathers, the banality is beginning to show and it is not a pretty sight."

Zuma, as he prepares to go to Polokwane for his anointment, knows the battle is merely his to lose. To him should go the laurels in the "anyone but Mbeki" mood of the ANC Joe Public.

While there are widespread predictions that the Scorpions will bring fresh charges against him within weeks for soliciting bribes, money laundering and evading tax in connection with the arms deal, he has pursued a populist campaign of stunning shamelessness with amazing zeal and energy. He has courted businessmen and communists; glad-handed rural Afrikaners; been anointed a pastor at African Pentecostal church meetings; said one day that as a traditional rural Zulu he would beat up gays who were "a disgrace to the nation and God" and told another audience the next that "I respect gays' and lesbians' rights".

Zuma is a touchy-feely fellow who sings and dances at events, which goes down well with ordinary South Africans, while Mbeki shrinks from contact and is incredibly stiff in public, always standing on his dignity. Zuma is unashamedly promiscuous - he has had many wives and has many current wives and sexual partners. For the mass of supporters who gathered outside court at his rape trial, he performed a priapic dance with a toy gun wielded at groin level while he sang a traditional war song, Bring Me My Machine Gun, beloved of Umkhonto We Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC in the days of apartheid. Women's rights advocates were appalled; the mob loved it.

But, whatever the destructiveness of the Mbeki-Zuma war, Barney Mthombothi, the editor of the Financial Mail, pointed out in his column last Friday that the root of the entire South African crisis is the arms deal.

"It's now become a spider's web, if not a dung heap, entangling and tarnishing all it attracts," said Mthombothi. "And it's certainly an albatross round the party's neck." He said Mbeki must know of the millions, if not billions, of European arms bribes that went into his comrades' pockets. "It beggars belief that a man of his intelligence could have presided over this rot without sniffing the stench.

"Surprisingly, the current scandal has yet to catch fire. There's almost a reluctance or refusal to engage with the subject. Maybe the issue is simply too ghastly to contemplate; or maybe the lolly has ended up in too many pockets."